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Restaurant Reviews

Sweet Paya

The first time I went to Nirala Sweets BBQ, I looked past the confections lining the case on the back wall and thought, No, first I'll have lunch. I scanned the short menu of Pakistani dishes and asked about the things I was unfamiliar with. Fish curries. Vegetable stews. Paya? "It's cow foot," said the man behind the counter, sprinkling crushed nuts on a shallow tray of something sweet.

"I'll try it."

What came out was a styrofoam bowl containing a single, fist-sized knot of bone encased in glistening cartilage and flecks of meat, sitting in a pool of thin, aromatic broth to be scooped up with fresh-baked bread. It was simple and soulful South Asian breakfast food.

After I finished the last bits of gelatinous meat, Muhammad Shabbir grinned. "Do you want to try something good?"

He sliced a sliver of something beige from that shallow tray. It was soft and a little chewy, lightly tangy and sweet. It was kalakand, a concoction of cheese curds, pistachios, sugar, butter, and cardamom. Heavenly.

A year ago, the small storefront shop expanded into a Texas-themed room it took over -- without alterations -- from a forgettable barbecue joint, hence the odd "BBQ" moniker. The deeply strange space now offers the usual weekday Indian lunch buffet alongside the less usual, like kebabs, paya, and a weekend brunch of halwa puri -- flatbread served with a thick, sweet farina spread and hot, sour pickles.

Nirala still truly shines, though, with its namesake sweets. The shop is the sole American outpost of a 58-location chain Shabbir's grandfather founded in 1909.

Like sweets? The gulab jamun are semolina balls fried to a donut-y outer crunch and a waffles-with-syrup-ish interior. The halwahs are masterful, especially the mixed-nut fauladi (Shabbir's personal favorite) and carrot versions. There's also exemplary jalebi, deep-fried spirals of syrup best experienced fresh with still-liquid centers. They and their staff concoct the delish desserts. Those who shy away from serious sweetness may enjoy the kalakand and burfis, dense wedges with a texture between fudge and Italian cheesecake, including variants flavored with mango, coconut, and pistachios, or chum chum, simple pale logs of lightly sweet, ricotta-like curds.

The thrill is not in complex constructions but in the series of tastes and textures that unfold in each bite: cheese, butter, cardamom, nuts? What next?

When it opened in Sunrise about five years ago, Nirala planned to open more U.S. locations, but September 11 made it impossible to obtain visas for more Pakistani staff. We're lucky to have this shop. If you've had Indian sweets only from the refrigerated case of an Indo-Pak grocery, you'll find Nirala's fresh ones revelatory. If you've never had them before, try some and get hooked.

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Steve Koppelman

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