There's no way you're eating brains," my vegetarian fiancée said in a sterner voice than I've heard from her in a while. The look on her face told me argument was futile — not unless I was willing to sleep on the couch for the immediate future.
And just like that, my dreams of chomping down on wok-fired goat brain curry, à la Anthony Bourdain on a Mumbai street corner, were dashed.
Still, I was achingly curious about the goat brain masala served at Usmania, a 2-month-old Pakistani restaurant in Plantation. What did it taste like? Was the texture gelatinous or fatty? I turned to our waitress — her tight ponytail revealing a charming smile — and asked her if she ate the restaurant's oddly intriguing dish.
"Yeah, definitely," the young waitress responded, blushing slightly. "It's different, but it's very tasty."
Different is a good thing at Usmania. The restaurant makes a host of common Indian and Pakistani dishes like butter chicken, tandoori meats, and korma. But it also serves menu items that you won't find in many local restaurants — some dishes more adventurous than others.
Usmania is the lone South Florida location of the popular Pakistani franchise with outposts in Karachi, Pakistan, and Chicago. It's run by Aftab Katia and his wife, Fouzia, two natives of Karachi with a background in catering. The place is a real family affair: Their children work in the restaurant, and on weekends it fills with members of a tight-knit community of immigrants.
For those who haven't dabbled in Pakistani food, the cuisine shares a lot with that of Northern India, the major difference being the country's adherence to Muslim tradition, including halal rules that govern meat. Beef is a staple, and flatbreads like naan, chapati, and paratha are favored over rice.
On my first visit, two friends and I wandered into the cafeteria-like room filled with women dressed in burqas and saris and men in white cotton tunics. We ordered a feast of juicy seekh kebabs ($6.99), Karachi-style chicken ($5.99), and kebab rolls ($2.99) — burrito-like bundles of chopped tandoori chicken, onions, cilantro, and spicy mint chutney. As we scooped up chunks of tomato- and chili-studded chicken with Usmania's supremely crusty naan, owner Aftab stopped by our table to make sure we had everything we needed. The food — and the intimate service — made us feel like we were a part of the family too.
I decided to add to our meal with nihari ($6.99), one of Pakistan's national dishes. The hearty meat stew is hugely popular at breakfast, sold by street vendors in train and bus stations. Usmania's version is rich and thick with bits of shredded beef shank permeating the gooey sauce. The kitchen gives you a little bowl with fresh lemon slices, minced ginger, and cilantro to sprinkle in, and doing so makes the bold, spicy curry taste even brighter.
On another visit, I tried a similar dish called haleem ($6.99), a high-calorie Mughali preparation that combines slow-stewed beef shank with lentils and wheat. After hours of cooking, the mixture resembles a kind of meat porridge — thick, sticky, and gelatinous. It's not exactly goat brain, but the smooth and piquant meat paste is definitely a textural challenge for Western palates.
Usmania is still fairly new, and during the week, business slows. At these slow times, used dishes tend to pile up at empty tables around the restaurant, and — surprisingly — common service practices like refilling drinks and offering menu advice aren't handled as well. It seems at these times that the family feel grows a little too familiar.
Even so, with a menu as broad and inexpensive as Usmania's, I'm eager to return and try the half-dozen Indo-Chinese dishes, vegetarian specialties, and biryani. Who knows: With a little work, I'm sure I could manage to convince my fiancée to drop her embargo as well. Goat brain, here I come.