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Tarka Restaurant: Currying Flavor 

A new halal Pakistani restaurant expands south Asian dining options

click to enlarge Chef Mohammed "Chef Z" Zulfiqar prepares dishes from his native Pakistan at Tarka. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

News of an addition to the slim ranks of south Asian restaurants spreads quickly among curry heads, who typically arrive at the newly opened doors with strong expectations of naan bread, the iconic, heady flavor of garam masala and the succulence of tandoor-style meats. Expectations do not normally include beef, anathema at most Indian restaurants due to the cow's revered status in Hindi culture.

  But beef dishes like hearty, spicy nihari and thick, velvety haleem stand tallest at Tarka, a new Kenner restaurant that mixes classic dishes from the owner's Pakistani Muslim heritage with the more familiar line-up of chicken masala, pakoras and lentil dishes.

  On the surface, much of the cooking resembles Indian restaurant standards, but throughout its menu, Tarka adheres to the brawnier, heartier Pakistani approach. It's a style that shouts with spice, and Tarka is not shy about bringing the heat when requested.

  The restaurant was opened in January by Sadiha Ahmed, a New Orleans native whose previous restaurant experience included helping her family run franchised restaurants. She wanted to create something in line with her own roots, however, and recruited a chef from New Jersey, the Pakistani-born Mohammed Zulfiqar.

  Tarka recently added a lunch buffet, as all local Indian restaurants seem fated to provide. Like the others, it is a bargain proposition, and this one is a particularly good option to keep in mind for a quick lunch en route to the airport. But this is hardly the optimal way to experience Tarka or, for that matter, tarka.

  The restaurant's name is a cooking term referring to herbs and whole spices fried in oil, thus infusing the fat with their aromatic essence. In Indian and Pakistani cuisine, cooks use tarkas either as foundations for dishes or as final flavor flourishes. It can make a strong impression, as with a biryani rice dish lavishly flavored with whole clove and black pepper. The biryani is one of many opportunities here to eat goat, which Tarka gets from the halal (meat handled according to Islamic law) butcher shop Kased Brothers, found nearby on Williams Boulevard. Another vehicle is the naan, coated with sesame seeds anchored by butter and filled with spicy, minced bits of meat.

  Beef turns up as kebabs roasted in the tandoor oven, along with chicken, shrimp and more goat, though the kitchen has a disappointing tendency to overcook them. The specialty beef dishes are only reliably available on Friday and Saturday, but they're worth a trip. Haleem is a stew of beef and lentils, thickened with what looks like shredded wheat. You'll be presented with a spoon to dispatch this dish, though it begs to be eaten as a dip for more of that bubbly-crisp naan or quilted paratha bread. Nihari is often described as the national dish of Pakistan, and Tarka's version resembles an intense gravy, loaded with chunks and falling-apart strands of pot roast and rippling with shredded fresh ginger.

  It's food that makes you reach for the creamy cool of mint chutney, or a long sip from mango milkshakes or salty lassi yogurt drinks, but don't look for anything stronger here. There's no bar, and Tarka prohibits bringing in outside beverages.

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