In some restaurants, especially at ethnic places, it's considered a compliment to say, "It was just as if I'd been invited into their home." It's meant to imply a view into a different culture and an intimacy that you wouldn't expect in a commercial endeavor, and you sometimes can see the diners chatting with the cook as he or she makes the meal right in front of them.
Of course, some folks would much prefer to keep restaurant service at arm's length, being efficiently served and sufficiently pampered, because, after all, they've "gone out" to eat. To this latter group, I'd say that Zum Zum -- a new Subcontinental restaurant (self-described as "Pakistani/Indian") -- is probably not for you.
However, if you're patient and inquisitive and have a hankering for some curry, masala or biryani, Zum Zum expands the breadth of diversity in South Grand choices. (It also expands the ever-increasing number of area restaurants whose names begin with the letter Z. For those who believe that certain things always come in threes, we have now, in the course of one month, written about restaurants named Z, Zu Zu's Petals and Zum Zum.) And if you have the same experiences I did, it really is just like being invited into someone's home.
On my first visit, a little before lunch prime time, Zaib-un Meer, the missus of the husband-wife team running Zum Zum, certainly finished my chicken masala to order -- she did it in a stewpot on the industrial stove right behind the counter. After assuring me that she'd simmered the aromatic sauce for hours -- "the way it should be" -- I watched as she cooked about eight large chunks of chicken breast and added them to the mix. In a bit of cross-cultural utilitarianism, she had also included some jalapeños; even though their fire was diminished as a result of the lengthy simmering, they added an exclamation point to the warm aromatics of cardamom and other exotic spices.
I returned several days later for a slightly larger dinner carryout order, and again Zaib-un greeted me warmly and scurried about the prep area to put together orders of tandoori chicken (available in leg or breast portions), lamb biryani and vegetable samosas. Although the cafeterialike buffet line at Zum Zum (whose facilities housed a hotdog joint most recently and at least four or five other fast-food joints before that) has several steam tables, these were not in use on either of my visits. Instead, Zaib-un ran sauces on the stove, brought some of the ingredients out from the back, finished the tandoori in a multirack oven and flame-browned the accompanying naan bread on the gas fires of the stove.
I'm pretty sure there isn't an authentic tandoor oven hidden in the back room, so the tandoori chicken must actually have been made with tandoori paste and then sizzled in the industrial oven left over from one of the previous incarnations of the restaurant. Nonetheless, the three legs were plump and firm, and the $4 dish was filled out with onions and vegetables. The lamb biryani included a giant serving of delicately spiced basmati rice and several chunks of boneless, tooth-tender stew-cut lamb but also several bits that had to be chewed more gingerly because they were still attached to smaller pieces of cross-cut bone.
As for the samosas, they're described on the menu as "triangular shaped pasta," but I think the Meers meant to say "pastries," which is actually what they are -- a choice of vegetable (chickpeas and potatoes) and ground beef, deep-fried in pastry skins and served with a mild, mainly liquid, green chutney. Again, these were made fresh to my order, right before my eyes, and they made for great simple appetizers.
Except for the curry, dal (lentil) soup and a grilled-meat appetizer called chplee kabob, that's pretty much the whole menu, with almost everything under 5 bucks. The "full meal" option, for $6.99, comprises a sampler plate of chicken biryani, chicken curry, lamb curry and vegetable curry.
Diners should realize that despite the location's fast-food heritage and feel, it's not an in-and-out kind of place. Each of my visits required a 10- to 15-minute wait while everything was prepared; nonetheless, on my second visit, Zaib-un managed to deftly put together an order for a party of eight who walked in just after I did, serving them in approximately the same time as it took to prepare my order. Eat-in or carryout, everything is served in Styrofoam with plastic utensils, and beverage selections are limited to a soda fountain and American juice drinks and waters from a refrigerated case. Ever eager to please, Zaib-un noted on my second visit that she could have my next carryout order ready to go if I called ahead as I left my home or office -- but, then, we never would have been able to watch the end of Oprah together as I waited.
So if the thought of going over to a nice Pakistani couple's house for some home cooking is intriguing, next time you're shopping for an alternative night out -- or if the South Grand district is within your range for lunch and you're not rushed -- come on, give it a try. Come on and Zum Zum Zum-a Zum.