Warning: If you're walking down Brighton Avenue, this is not a place you would be drawn to. It has no "curb appeal." It's a storefront with a Pakistani market on one side and a six-table restaurant on the other. It is not the place for a romantic dinner or a girls' night out. But it is the place for a stellar Pakistani-Indian meal.
Walk in, and you can feel the authenticity. The people at the other tables are all from India or Pakistan. Ditto for those behind the counter and in the kitchen. There are things on the menu you can't begin to define. Most authentic of all is the food, a heady, spicy combination of tandoori dishes, curries, shish kebabs, and the wonderful flat bread, naan. It's all halal, the Muslim equivalent of kosher.
Madina Market came highly recommended by the consul general of Pakistan (the consulate is in Needham). So, in the spirit of international cooperation -- and a hankering for tandoori chicken -- we went to Madina. It is reportedly the only Pakistani restaurant in the Boston area. "The other one closed down," says Imran Dossa, originally from Karachi. His family runs the Subway sandwich franchise in Coolidge Corner, but when they want food from the homeland, they come to Madina Market.
We had been told that the chappali kebab was one of a kind: You can't get it in Indian restaurants because the cow is sacred in India, and it's made of beef. The large order is $5.50, and includes four large patties of grilled, spiced ground beef that makes an American hamburger look lame. There's onion, cumin, coriander, and pomegranate seeds in the kebab that give it more than a faint heat. (The cook will ask you how hot you like your food; we went spicy, resulting in pleasing, but sinus-clearing results.)
The family that owns the Madina Market comes from northern Pakistan, near Islamabad. "They know how to make grilled meat like no one else," says Barry Hoffman, the consul general who frequents the restaurant.
We couldn't choose between the various tandoori-baked breads, so we ordered the bread basket ($9.90), which actually came on two large plates. We love the garlic naan -- here it is very garlicky -- but were especially pleased with the keema naan, a version we'd never had before. It's filled with spicy minced meat and fresh coriander leaves. Soft, but with a crackle on top, the breads are great for sopping up all the sauces.
With a dozen curried dishes to choose from, we asked one of the owners, Danweer Khan, to recommend a favorite. (His brother Nashat and father Fazal Mabud actually run the place). Khan suggested kurma ($8.45), pieces of tender chicken served in a creamy tomato-based sauce, also available with lamb or shrimp. This curry was milder than lots we've had, a welcome contrast to the rest of the food on the table.
Tikka masalas are one of my favorite dishes; this time, we ordered lamb instead of the usual chicken ($9.95). The lamb chunks were first grilled in the tandoor, or clay oven -- the better for sealing in moisture -- and then cooked again with strings of onions in a creamy tomato and yogurt-based sauce. The aromatic heat comes from the coriander, turmeric, and cumin so prevalent in India and Pakistan.
"You must have a shish-kebab," our neighbor, Imran, tells us. We get a small order, two pieces for $3.95. They're the size of long cigars, spiced chicken ground with minced onions cooked on skewers in the tandoor. The faint heat comes from cumin seeds.
You can't go into a Pakistani (or Indian) restaurant without ordering tandoori chicken ($7.80 for a large order), which is to those countries what barbecued wings are to this one. The chicken is sprinkled with lemon juice; then rubbed with spices such as masala, hot chili, curry powders and turmeric; and finally baked in the clay oven. This popular dish is a juicy, spicy offering.
For dessert, we had the kheer, or rice pudding ($2.95). Made with basmati rice, it's super sweet and, in this incarnation, very soupy and very cold. We wouldn't bother next time. A better sweet is the mango lassi ($2.50), a yogurt-based shake.
In keeping with the bare-bones look, orders are placed at the counter and the food is delivered on styrofoam plates with plastic utensils. As for decor, it consists of a few Pakistani travel posters taped to the walls. It's fun to wander over to the market side and see the products that go into the food you've just ordered: sesame and coriander seeds, Pakistani rices, lentils or dal, cloves, and dried chilis.
The Madina Market's Kitchen also offers special plates -- an entree and rice -- for $7.95 and a $5.99 all-day buffet.
All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at ae.boston.com/dining Moogy's 154 Chestnut Hill Ave., Brighton. 617-254-8114. You could describe Moogy's as a sub shop. But that wouldn't capture the merry madness of this place, which has checker boards built into its tabletops, hoagies with names like Jolly Green Giant and Cow Meets Egg, and specialties like banana-cheese omelettes and grilled triple-decker peanut butter, banana and marshmallow sandwiches. All-day breakfasts are particularly good, especially the peanut butter-chip pancakes and French-toast sandwiches. There's even something for Fido: homemade bone-shaped dog treats flavored with "pea-mutt" butter. (3/4/04, S.P.)
Luciano's 561 Cambridge St., East Cambridge. 617-441-8222. Take the olive oil and garlic that infuses Portuguese food, the starchy root vegetables and beans of West Africa, and add in a little island flair, and you get the hearty but vibrant fare served at this Cape Verdean restaurant. The generous daily lunch buffet, which includes a few Brazilian dishes as well, is the way to go. (2/26/04, D.T.)
Taiwan Cafe 34 Oxford St., Boston. 617-426-8181. Everyone's favorite Chinatown restaurant really delivers: You get the sense that an army of chefs must be manning the woks here because the food comes to the table so quickly, so hot, and so beautifully made. Try pan-fried dumplings, sauteed clams with basil, salt-and-pepper shrimp, home-style braised eggplant, and sauteed spinach. And much more. (2/19/04, S.J.)
Tiki Room 1 Lansdowne St., Boston. 617-351-2580. This kitschy island-themed room is built around a large, rectangular bar, tropical drinks and pu-pu platters. It's a social experience as much as anything, but the food is good, too. While watching re-runs of "Gilligan's Island," share an assortment of Asian pu-pu offerings, or a platter built around veggies, or carbs, depending on your attitude (and waistline). The room is a bit dark, but the fake tiki flames and blue and green lanterns lend a certain warmth -- as well as a 60-ounce Scorpion Bowl, meant to be shared. (2/12/04, B.E.)
Teriyaki House 32 West Broadway, South Boston. 617-269-2000. A sushi bar in Southie? It's true. Teriyaki House boasts a six-seat sushi bar in a serene dining room with a very Zen feel and also serves Chinese and Japanese food that's made-to-order, and loaded with crisp vegetables. Most foods are wok-cooked, grilled, or steamed, so service is very quick. At long last, healthy Asian food has come to South Boston. (2/5/04, S.P.)