Khyber Tandoor Mahal
5216 Wilson Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday through Thursday; 2:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday.
Prices: Appetizers 70 cents to 90 cents; entrees $2.99 to $5.75.
Cash and checks only.
No separate non-smoking section.
If eating spicy, Pakistani food in the front of a grocery store sounds interesting, then you'll like this compact combo of Pakistani grocery, meat market, and restaurant-carryout two blocks west of George Mason Boulevard.
Owner Muhammad Iqbal Mughal claims that this is the only true Pakistani restaurant in the metro area, although the cuisine there has much in common with other area restaurants serving northern Indian food, such as Haandi (Falls Church) and Tandoor (Alexandria).
There are few amenities: seating is limited to six tables, and the pictures hanging on the pink walls provide minimal decoration. You place your own order at the counter separating the kitchen and the dining area. But the price is right -- no dish comes in over $6 -- and the food is hearty and heated with an infusion of fresh and dried spices such as cumin, coriander, cardamom, cayenne pepper and hot green chilis.
The menu consists of two basic categories: marinated meats skewered and grilled over the searing heat of a Tandoor oven, and stews and vegetable dishes simmered slowly, some for up to 12 hours. Both are served with either aromatic basmati rice or delicious freshly baked circles of nan (a bread similar to pita).
Samosas, the savory, triangular pastries, make a tasty snack or appetizer. The beef stuffing is very finely ground and lean, with a slightly sweet and mildly spicy seasoning. I prefer, however, the delectable vegetable version of cubed potatoes and onions, which packs a powerful pepper punch.
Perhaps the best dish I tasted was karahi gosht ($5.75), the lamb stew in which the layering of spices reaches near perfection in a thick blend of tomato and onions. A large mound of fluffy basmati rice is the perfect accompaniment for these sauced stews.
There are regular daily specials and a Wednesday treat is kofta curry featuring light meatballs laced with cumin in a sauce thick with onion and chunks of potato.
One of the Friday specials is mutton curry with spinach. The mutton, I was told, is actually goat but it has a mild, lamb-like flavor, while the spinach is slightly acrid.
In addition to the two daily meat specials, there are also vegetable specials such as cauliflower, winter melon (a naturally bitter vegetable) and one of the soup-like, highly seasoned lentil dishes called dal.
As for the grilled meats, the less spicy selections include the chunks of boneless chicken breast coated with a distinctive orange-colored yogurt marinade, which arrived moist with smoky, charred edges, and the equally tasty boneless lamb, although some of the meat was a bit chewy. If you want something spicier, try either of two ground beef choices -- seekh kebab, ground beef wrapped around the steel skewers, and the hamburger-shaped chappal kebab loaded with herbs and spices that detonate in your mouth.
The beverage of choice for all of these culinary fireworks is a wonderfully refreshing yogurt drink, lassi, which comes sweet, salty or plain. Soft drinks, juices, coffee and tea are also available.
Trays of Pakistani sweets brought in from New York are on display in a glass case near the door. Those dense confections in assorted shapes and colors make a pleasantly sweet finish and are worth trying.