As we peruse the menu at the Pelican, my two friends and I snack on papri chaat, one of my favorite starters. Crispy papris are piled with chickpeas, yogurt, tamarind, chutney, cilantro, and tomatoes. It's a lively interplay of crunch and goop commingling with cilantro, the pasty sweet of tamarind, and the spicy pop of chutney. Chaat means "to lick" in Hindi, and that's what we want to do with the remnants of sauce from our dish, which has been likened to the Indian equivalent of nachos.
The Pelican is a faded diner tucked among consignment stores, pizza joints, beach bars, and hippie coffee shops that make up the charming downtown Lake Worth strip. On a Friday evening a block from the restaurant, adults sit on park benches to watch a puppet show on a wooden stage awash in primary colors. Leashed dogs greet one another while their owners catch up. Outside the Pelican, tables shaded by umbrellas flank the sidewalk. Inside, singles sit on chairs with well-worn backs at a faded countertop. A row of laminated menus rests on paper place settings.
You can't get more Americana than a 1950s-style diner. And the Pelican is a testament to the quintessential American immigrant story. It is owned by Tahira and Mohammad Sami, who are from Pakistan. They've been in Lake Worth for 30 years and owned a convenience store before buying the diner six years ago. Tahira says they wanted to do something more creative. "Besides," she says, " I like to cook."
Back then, the diner was a standard breakfast and lunch spot with a menu of American classics like pancakes with berries, eggs, or oatmeal. Tamira slowly introduced the northern Indian dishes she grew up on and learned that her customers loved them. Two years ago, Tahira and her husband decided to expand their hours for an evening. These Friday-night dinners at the Pelican have become destination dining. "I'm the only one cooking back there," says Tahira, head covered by a dupatta when she exits the kitchen.
Look to the special board for a spinach keema omelet that packs in red chili and chicken, served with naan and home fries. Or eggs nissa, scrambled with green curry that offers heat from jalapeños and ginger. Omelets blend a stateside affection for breakfast eggs with the complexity and spice of Indian cuisine. Meatier dishes are available, with lamb karahi making an occasional appearance.
Indian cuisine is mysterious to many Western cooks. Even highly skilled French chefs cite its allure. Bertrand Chemel, former chef de cuisine for Daniel Boulud, once told me that it's the type of cooking he was most inspired to learn. Much of Indian cooking starts with a basic onion curry, layered with ginger, garlic, cumin, and coriander. Chili or tumeric add spikes of flavor. A garam masala spice blend of ground cardamom, cinnamon, peppercorns, bay leaves, and nutmeg adds an earthy character and fragrant aroma. Garnishes of herbs like curry leaves, cilantro, and basil offer freshness to what's become a complex dish that improves with low heat, time, and skill of the cook.
The naan we use to wipe plates clean is baked in a tandoori oven off-site and delivered daily. Oil and yogurt mix with flour to create a batter that's proofed twice before baking. And ghee — Indian clarified butter — lends a nutty flavor. It's served with Tahira's basic chutney condiments. Green mango and cilantro are the basis for the brightest of the three. Dates and tamarind create the mellowest fruit chutney. And jalapeños and mangoes lend sweetness and spice to the showiest one.
Craving heat, we order vindaloo. Yet it isn't the mouth-on-fire version offered in every hole in the wall in Britain. Cayenne offers subtle heat in a sauce made of tomato, curry, tamarind, ginger, garlic, cumin, and a touch of coconut. The flavors of the gravy resonate as we drizzle every last bit on fragrant basmati rice, though we wish the chicken were chopped instead of plated as a whole breast. And we want more sauce.
A vegetarian friend orders palak paneer, a standard with a spinach base in a rich, smooth, and creamy curry. It's delicious, fattened up with farmer's cheese. "You didn't choose my favorites," says Tahira after we ordered. Chicken biryani is one, a most popular Indian recipe of rice, ghee, spice blends, and herbs. But she really loves yellow daal. It reminds her of family, she says. And of cooking with her grandmother.
Despite that the Samis are decades from their native land, it's cooking at the Pelican that keeps home close. For the Samis, it's just gravy. For a Lake Worth following, the Pelican is eclectic and inspired.