But another kind of fusion cuisine has been developing in recent years, an odd hybrid of ethnic restaurant, street-food stall and American fast-food joint. It likely won't shock you to learn that St. Louis isn't on the cutting edge of this trend — I've been reading about the slick, hip ramen shops in Los Angeles for years now — but we aren't missing out entirely.
Consider Café Lazeez, which bills itself as a Pakistani and American fast-food café. The tiny storefront is located at the western end of a Manchester Road strip mall, just east of Highway 141. The restaurant's dual nature is apparent even before you enter it: Banners advertising its pizza and burger specials hang in the front windows; smaller decals attest to its halal credentials.
The interior follows the basic fast-food template: booths and freestanding tables in front of a counter, where you order from a picture menu on the wall. On my visits, at least, my food arrived more quickly than at a traditional sit-down restaurant, but not nearly as fast as at a true fast-food joint. Utensils are small and plastic, which presents a problem when cutting chicken from the bone.
For the most part, the menu is divided between Pakistani and American food. Pakistani dishes are available individually or, at lunch, in combination platters of two dishes with a small salad and either rice or naan. That was how I tried the beef kabob and the chicken karahi, in combination #5.
The kabobs are slender cylinders of minced, seasoned beef — spicy but not aggressively so. Cooling, if you need it, is provided by a small cup of yogurt with cucumber and cilantro. The kabobs are tasty and a good introduction for a diner unfamiliar with the cuisines of Pakistan and India, but I found the chicken karahi far more interesting. This dish places chunks of bone-in chicken — be careful, many of the bones are small — in a tomato-based sauce spiked with very thinly sliced green chiles. I couldn't get enough of this sauce. Scooping it up with the excellent naan until the flatbread was down to its last square inches, I was essentially licking the sauce straight from my fingertips.
Chicken biryani is a more regal dish, so I managed to keep my fingers out of my mouth. Also, there wasn't really any sauce to lick up, though it does come with a small cup of raita. The yogurt sauce can be added to the biryani to cut the heat, which lends a touch of sourness to the rich blend of savory spices, making (most essentially, in this case) the dish a little moister.
To be honest, the chicken was my least favorite aspect of this dish, a little on the dry side and not quite as flavorful as the seasoned rice. On another visit, after I'd placed my order, I noticed a specials board advertising goat biryani. Sadly, when I returned the next day, it had been replaced by another special.
If I were visiting Café Lazeez on my own dime, I might not have glanced at the American part on the menu. That would have been a mistake: Café Lazeez offers a couple of fast-food gems — notably its "broasted" chicken.
Broasting, believe it or not, is a trademarked process. Basically, it combines deep-frying with pressure-cooking. That might sound like a recipe for a catastrophic explosion in the kitchen, but in fact, it produces incredibly tasty chicken. The breading is thin, very crisp and not exceptionally greasy. The chicken itself is very tender and juicy and surprisingly spicy.
I don't know that I'd go so far as Café Lazeez's display, in which a smiling chicken boasts, "Broasted is better" — I like a slightly thicker breading and a touch more grease, and besides, would you trust a chicken to tell you the best way of cooking it? — but the fried chicken does rank among the area's best.
The pizza is very good, too, if nowhere near as sensational as the chicken. The crust is medium-thick, with a decent chew and a lightly crisped bottom. The sauce has a touch of heat to it, though the layer of cheese is thick enough that the overall effect is subtle. Most of the usual pizza toppings are available. I enjoyed my pie with thickly sliced pepperoni made from beef instead of pork.
(Café Lazeez follows the halal strictures of Islam, hence the beef pepperoni. I should also note that the restaurant closes every Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. for employees to attend weekly prayers.)
I wasn't as impressed with the hamburger. The patty was thick and seemed hand-formed, and its exterior displayed perfect grill marks and a lovely, flavorful char. I wasn't asked for a temperature preference, however, and the kitchen cooked my burger to well-done, robbing the interior of its juiciness, not to mention most of its flavor.
Appetizers include chicken strips, Buffalo wings and "cheese sticks," which, I discovered, means cheese bread, not fried mozzarella sticks. After bringing this back to my office, I came across two of my colleagues arguing to what degree this cheese bread resembled the cheese bread at Little Caesars. I have no opinion on the matter.
Café Lazeez offers very few examples of fusion cuisine in the term's traditional sense. Beef kabob, tandoori chicken and chicken tikka are available as pizza toppings. But the only true crossover dish is the chicken tikka sub. The menu describes this as "barbequed cubes of chicken marinated in yogurt and spices with veggies of choice in white sub." It fails to mention its two American aspects: globs of mayo and a thick, partially melted slab of cheese, neither of which paired well with the seasoned meat.