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Little Bombay

Naz Cafe
Christopher Gardner

Hand to Mouth: A chicken kabob wrapped in naan makes a meal to go.

A one-stop shop for an evening-at-home-in-a-bag, Naz Cafe offers entertainment and food to go

By Andrew X. Pham

THERE'S AN ODD tiny place down on the old section of Fremont Boulevard that I like to think of as Little Bombay. This area doesn't have a particularly large ethnic Indian population, but the Naz Cafe thrives as a community center. The friendliness of owner Shiraz Jivani makes this quaint dive a popular spot for Indian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans.

Adjoining an old movie theater, it looks at first glance more like a mom-and-pop video store than an eatery. A 6,000-title library of Indian videos covers one side of the room. The food display cases store Indian music tapes. Empty videotape boxes scale the wall. Mirrors make the place bigger than its actual 10-table size. A steady traffic of video renters marches in for their take-home entertainment and the convenient food-to-go service. For many, Naz Cafe is a complete one-stop shop for an evening-at-home-in-a-bag.

On weekend evenings, the place is crowded with Indians and Pakistanis, many eating with the traditional finger style (right hand only). The place is Muslim owned and operated, so a diner who is drunk or verbally vulgar will be escorted off the premises with his money refunded.

For a light snack, the beef kabob ($2.99) is a big hit. Served like a soft taco, this two-fisted meal coddles a spicy sausage-like kabob of tandoori beef, paprika-hot, slathered with mint raita, fresh onion and rounds of tomato.

The major surprise on the regular menu is the chicken tikka boti ($7.49). Two fresh tortilla-like naan come with this tandoori favorite. Straight from the tandoori oven, nine luscious chunks of yogurt-marinated chicken, incredibly soft and juicy, sizzle with caramelized onions on a heated cast-iron plate. It seems almost preposterous to find such full and delicate flavors in such an innocuous-looking place. The naan and the mint raita (yogurt sauce) that come with the chicken easily make a meal without anything else.

Perfumed with spices, the nirha ($4.99), a beef stew, is a seven-hour intimate infusion of fennel, cumin and coriander. Tender and shred-soft, two huge chunks of lean beef provide adequate meat to go with a pair of naan ($1). A side of chopped parsley, galangal, lemon and chile pepper heightens the thick stew with a unique combination of sourness and spiciness that could be more popular than vindaloo if more places knew how to make it taste this good.

Another big favorite for which many regulars show up is the Bangali fish special (price varies), available only on weekend dinners. One of the cooks, a transplant from Bangladesh, whips up 30 pounds of fish, using famous recipes from his home country. His curried fish is one of the best around.

The lunch ($3.99) and dinner ($5.99) specials had a lot of a little, including freshness and flavors. They simply didn't measure up to the dishes mentioned above. Still, even in the dull wash of fluorescent light, Naz Cafe is an uncomplicated cafeteria that has enough authentic flavors and low prices to make it a true cultural bargain.

Naz Cafe & Cinema, 37411 Fremont Blvd., Fremont; 510/745-9340.

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From the February 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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