I prefer Shalimar on Polk Street over the one that is across from Bourbon and Branch in the Tenderloin. The entire restaurant did not stop and stare at us when we walked in this time, although the last time at the Tenderloin branch we did stagger in at 2am into a restaurant full of Muslim men: one Italian/Iranian guy, a Filipino American couple and a Chinese American couple, all in different states of drunkenness after a long evening at the speakeasy across the street.
Tonight it was just my husband and I going to this popular Indian/Pakistani restaurant on Polk Street. We could have brought our own wine or beer, one of the perks of eating at Shalimar. But since I had a gin martini the night before at the Elite and I did just come from the gym and a massage, we had water and sodas instead. In line to place our order, I noticed a mural depicting the Shalimar Gardens which, according to Wiki research, is a Persian garden built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The mural depicts modernity as well: next to the ancient building the artist fancifully paints in cars and billboards. One in particular caught my eye: next to some other billboard ad, in small script it read "Lahore." I wonder if many of the patrons got the reference or even cared, although I tend to think the latter the way folks uncorked wine bottles and sopped up saucy dishes with pieces of naan.
Hungry as I felt my mind started to wander and I repeated the word "Lahore" to myself. Such a beautiful sound, an incantation, hidden in the bustle of this urban restaurant on typical workday evening. As we made our way to the back to be seated, I remembered a novel I read about a young girl coming of age in Lahore around the time that India and Pakistan were divided. It made me think of cultural rifts and how families and neighborhoods can be torn apart by politics. I started to feel sad and dislocated myself, a Filipina born and raised in Manila but who considers herself more American now, no, more San Franciscan, be it one with roots that extend back to the homeland where my father still lives. I cheered myself up by watching naan being made by hand, studded with garlic and slapped into a roaring tandoori oven in what could have been a scene lifted straight from the novel set in Lahore.
But back to dinner after a quasi-literary/identity politics diversion. Although I wanted to order the lamb shanks so I could sop up the marrow with garlic naan while sucking on the hollow bones for any remaining fatty goodness, my husband vetoed me. Or rather, he made a face and so we went with a typical chicken tandoori dish which turned out pretty average. The real standout items were the stewed okra with slices of ginger and a beef dish with a sauce of green peppers and whole spices. Ordering the okra seemed to impress the cashier since garbanzo beans (chala masala) was the more popular choice. The okra was hot with chilis and pungent with just the right acidity to brighten the flavors. It reminded me of Bicol Express , a tongue-numbing spicy dish of stewed taro leaves, coconut milk, ginger, dried fish and slices of pork. Although of course, no pork would ever be served at Shalimar due to cultural and religious restrictions. It still amazed me though how food from two different countries made of completely different ingredients could taste so similar. I am inspired to find other examples in my own culinary meanderings.