Zaika Grill in Pembroke Pines Puts a South Asian Twist on American Classics

Inside a nondescript strip mall, Arabic writing and trite photos of Indo-Pak cuisine are plastered across an obscure, darkly tinted storefront.

Zaika Grill, located in a quiet Pembroke Pines neighborhood, is one of the area's only restaurants specializing in Indo-Pak cooking, a blend of Indian and Pakistani influences. The restaurant features dishes such as haleem, a thick, spicy curry stew packed with lentils ground with wheat; and chicken tikka masala, where chunks of chicken are stuffed in a creamy orange-colored sauce with a hint of spice.

Despite the area's sparse appearance, dinnertime at Zaika Grill is bustling. And though a smattering of tables are topped with brightly colored curries, masalas, and kebabs, which are foods native to India and Pakistan, a majority are laden with pizza, wings, and subs.

Owner Syed Chishti, who hails from Pakistan, has called America home since the '70s, inspiring his unique Indo-Pak versions of Americanized cuisine. For more than 40 years, Chishti has created a name for himself by taking Western classics and adding a South Asian twist.

"I've put my two worlds together," Chishti says. "It started from wanting to cook my food and bring my culture to America but trying to make it blend in too."

Chishti, who took over ownership at Zaika Grill this past February, began his career in the States as a server at Denny's. Within a month, he was promoted, and later landed jobs at large American chains such as IHOP and KFC. He opened Indian American Restaurant in Davie, but the eatery was sold in 2014.

Owner Syed A. Chisthti makes maan bread in a tandoor.
Owner Syed A. Chisthti makes maan bread in a tandoor.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

After leaving the industry for more than a year and a half, Chishti decided it was time to reignite his passion for American-style Indo-Pak, and with that came the resurrection of "Syed's pizza and chicken wings."

"My customers have been following me ever since," he says. "I was the first one to introduce these kind of pizzas, wings, and subs, and I became famous for it."

Though most of the dishes will look familiar to Americans, what separates Chishti's plates are the spices he uses during preparation, such as garam masala, coriander, cumin, and chilli flakes. And everything is prepared in adherence with Halal, which means the restaurant's meat, from the pepperoni on its pizzas to the meat inside its Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, is prepared according to Islamic law. Because Halal restaurants are uncommon in South Florida — when compared to American staples like McDonald's and Pizza Hut — Chishti gives Indian- and Pakistani-Americans a taste of the food that feeds New World appetites and satisfies age-old traditions.

The most popular pizza flavor Chishti sells is chicken tikka, representing a harmonious blend of two cultures. The dough used in each pie is similar to naan, South Asian leavened bread cooked using a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven. Unlike with traditional naan, Chishti forgoes yeast and baking powder in the dough, giving the pizza a fluffier and lighter texture.

A BBQ platter with chicken legs and beef seekh kebabs.
A BBQ platter with chicken legs and beef seekh kebabs.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

He rolls and stretches each ball of dough by hand, making two different-sized pizzas — ten- and 16-inch. He smothers a secret sauce on top of every pie, his own Indo-Pak twist on Italian pizza sauce.

"There's no basil or parsley in it," he says. "It's still a tomato-based sauce, but it's different. I use black peppers, salt, garlic, and a few Indian spices."

After spreading the sauce, Chishti adds cheese and chicken tikka, which is marinated in yogurt and spices. The meat in his Philly cheesesteak sandwich is prepared similarly, though he uses beef instead of chicken and, of course, still follows Halal.

"I'm putting my culture's flavors in American food," he says. "A lot of Muslim people cannot enjoy these kinds of food, but now there's a way."

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Instead of being fried, his chicken wings are made using a tandoor. They're marinated for five to six hours in yogurt and Indian spices and then transformed into flavors — such as hot, barbecue, honey-sesame, and honey-garlic — by special seasoning and cooking methods mirroring "a South Asian way," he says.

And it's not just American food on which he puts his cultural stamp. In addition to creating a range of barbecue tandoor options, such as chicken tikka legs and chapli kebabs, Chishti has crafted a South Asian-and-American mashup menu of Chinese delicacies. Dishes like sweet-and-sour shrimp, honey chicken, and chili beef are prepared using Indo-Pak spices such as cumin, coriander, and chilies. Chishti says tossing in other seasonings jazz up the plates, giving each dish longer-lasting flavors not commonly found in fare at most restaurants.

Chicken wings
Chicken wings
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Besides Western (and Eastern) twists, Chishti is also known for his mastery of authentic Indo-Pak cuisine. His menu lists traditional dishes such as goat paya in a masala curry and chicken karahi smeared in a spicy tomato gravy.

One of his classics — butter chicken — is an especially popular specialty. The traditional dish is made with garam masala, coriander, cumin, and other spices, boiled in a fusion of butter and cream. It's one of Zaika's less piquant options, a good entry order for diners who might be unfamiliar with Indo-Pak's zesty flavors.

Though Chishti spends most of his time in the kitchen — he's involved in everything from buying spices to mixing curries and rolling dough — he, ironically, doesn't have much time to sit down for a full meal.

During his one day off a week (Zaika Grill is closed Monday), he visits an assortment of Indian and Pakistani specialty stores in the area to purchase every ingredient needed for his menu. With barely any time to spare, he can often be found toting a small bag of white powdered doughnuts in hand.

"I love American food," he says, "and I love to cook, ever since I was a kid, really. People do need good Indian and Pakistani food, but they need other things too."

Zaika Grill
1491 N. Palm Ave., Pembroke Pines; 954-391-9919; zaikagrill.net. Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday.

  • Chicken tikka pizza, $9.99
  • Philly cheesesteak, $8.99
  • Chicken wings, $9.99
  • Goat paya in masala curry, $12.99
  • Chicken karahi, $10.99
  • Butter chicken, $11.99
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Zaika Grill

1491 N. Palm Ave.
Pembroke Pines, FL 33024

954-391-9919

www.zaikagrill.net


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