South Salt Lake • Zaika — which means “tasty” in three of the languages spoken in Amir Mahmood’s homeland — is an accurate description of the food he and his wife serve at the out-of-the-way Zaika Grill N’ Kebab.
If you’re unsure of the cuisine you might find at a Pakistani and Kashmiri restaurant, you’ll be pleased to encounter the familiar offerings found in many Indian restaurants. Even better, items such as the samosa and lamb shank are some of the most delicious I’ve tasted.
While there is a printed menu as well as two wall menu boards at Zaika, in my experience the menus are simply suggestions for what might be available from the kitchen. If you are at all adventurous, discuss the things you like with Mahmood, including your spice tolerance, and he’ll prepare something for you. If you’re concerned about the cost, tell him the amount you want to spend per person and food will be prepared to meet your budget.
On our first visit, we tried a selection of kebabs including the seekh ($2.99), spicy minced beef shaped around a thick rod and then cooked in the tandoor oven; and a flavorful chicken tikka boti ($3.99) marinated in a yogurt sauce, cubed and cooked kebab-style in the clay oven. The kebabs were served over mouth-watering masala buryani rice ($6.99) seasoned with cardamom and fresh herbs.
We also were introduced to Zaika’s lamb shank ($8.99), which we picked clean of tender, juicy meat. We made good use of the tandoor-baked sesame-seed naan ($1.59) by dipping it in the gravy made from the lamb drippings.
Service at Zaika is slow, as Amir and his wife, Saqiba, are the only staff — taking orders, preparing the food and then serving it. Think of your meals here as an invitation to a foreign relative’s home where you’ll be able to take in cooking techniques and learn the history of their homeland. Questions are readily answered and knowledge is freely shared. It can be rather insightful if you’ve got the time.
The experience should help you overlook the mismatched furniture, random interior paint colors and loud ’80s movies or Bollywood shows blaring from the TV.
Zaika advertises a lunch buffet Monday-Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $11.99. Buffet is a bit of a misnomer. While there is a buffet cart at the counter in front of the open kitchen, the lunch actually consists of Amir cooking a large platter of select foods for guests. If you would like seconds, place your request with the Mahmoods.
Expect rice, kebabs and a flavorful lentil side, daal chawall ($4.99), and perhaps a curry. On our visit, the chicken curry ($5.99) was heavier on tomato than I would have liked, but the onion and ginger notes were enjoyable. You’ll also get that aforementioned samosa ($1.89). These puffs of potatoes can often be dry, tasteless and greasy. At Zaika, they were seasoned with a skillful hand and the starch was still toothsome once biting through the crunchy exterior.
Drinks are another matter. There are a few cans of soda in a cooler and you’ll eventually be brought water if you dine in. We also tried the cool mango lassi and a floral rose milk drink ($2.89 each), but neither was delivered until well after our dinner was served. Hopefully, as the restaurant becomes busier, the drink service will improve.
For dessert, try the warm gulab jamun ($2.99), fried balls of milk solids with a rose-scented syrup. Most Indian restaurants serve these, but Zaika’s were fresher and more satisfying than other preparations I’ve tried.
After one particularly enlightening dinner when we struck up a lively conversation with the Mahmoods and the only other patrons in the restaurant, Amir treated us all to paan ($1.99), a traditional after-dinner digestive filled with candied anise and a medley of other botanicals carefully wrapped in betel leaves. Certainly an acquired taste, it cast a stomach-churning cloud over our dinner and we would have been happier without it.
With some of the best Pakistani and Kashmiri food Salt Lake has — as well as a funky interior and free-spirited menu and ordering style — it’s unlikely you’ll have a dining experience like Zaika’s anywhere in Utah.
Just politely decline the paan.
Zaika Grill N’ Kebab
Food • HHH
Mood • H
Service • HH
Noise • bb
Hidden just off State Street, Zaika serves tandoor-oven kebabs, naan and other Pakistani and Kashmiri gems.
Location • 3540 S. State, South Salt Lake; 801-268-1658
Online • facebook.com/ZaikaGrillnKebab
Hours • Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Children’s menu • No
Prices • $-$$
Liquor • No
Reservations • No
Takeout • Yes
Wheelchair access • Yes
Outdoor dining • No
On-site parking • Yes
Credit cards • Visa and Mastercard; no American Express