If there’s a Little Karachi — maybe it should be called Little Lahore, to satisfy the ear’s desire for alliteration? — in the Washington region, it might be here in the Brookfield Plaza Shopping Center in Springfield.
Once you cruise past Tippy’s Taco and the Max Muscle Sports Nutrition shop on Spring Garden Drive, you enter the heart of this shopping district, which is the closest thing Pakistani expats have to the Eden Center, that nexus of Vietnamese culture in Falls Church. Shops here cater to the Pakistani community’s needs: groceries, halal meats, kebabs, formalware, banquet halls, prayer rooms and practically everything else, down to the rainbow-colored sweets for special celebrations or just everyday snacking.
Ghulam Rubani, chef and owner of Dera Restaurant, is an old pro at taking care of his own. A pastry chef back in Lahore, Rubani moved to the United States in 1990 and picked up where he left off. At Shiney’s Sweets and Restaurant in Annandale, the chef was among the first to introduce locals to the desserts popular in South Asia: squares of sweet, milky barfi perfumed with cardamom or studded with pistachios; fried coils of dough known as jalebi, each made sticky with syrup; vast pans of carrot halwa, the colors so vibrant the pudding seems to burn crimson and orange, like a late-summer sunset.
Rubani’s sweets greet you at the door at Dera, where a display case is crammed with barfi, cheesy cham-chams, syrupy gulab jamun and countless other confections. Don’t forget to take a bag of them home with you. After all, the odds are good you won’t feel like dessert after digging into Rubani’s buffet, a generous spread of Pakistani-style stews, salads, curries and tandoori meats, some that pack enough chili-powder heat to turn your head into a lighthouse for passing ships.
The buffet offerings are more robust on the weekends, when the faithful arrive in all their colors. One Saturday, members of an amateur football team — their navy-blue uniforms identifying them with the kind of football actually played with your feet — occupied a large table next to a wall fashioned to resemble ornate, Arabic-style arches. Just steps away, an extended family pushed together several tables for dinner, the women in flowing gowns and hijabs, the men in earth-toned thobes. Their children had no apparent interest in such modesty: They circled the dining room like a playground, one with a kulfi popsicle in hand.
They all come here for the weekend buffet, which features haleem, nihari, chicken biryani and other dishes not typically stocked on the weekday steam table. The haleem, a silky stew of chicken, lentils and grains, is a punch of Pakistani spice delivered with a velvet glove. The long-simmered nihari offers a meatier take on stew, its intoxicating fragrance somewhat undercut by the plodding, pot-roastlike beef. The chicken biryani teases you with its sweet, clove-scented kiss before cutting you with its serrated heat. It is pleasure. It is pain. It is impossible to tell what role you assume — sadist or masochist — as you fork more biryani onto your already stinging tongue.
The weekday buffet should not be dismissed as a struggling understudy to the weekend star. If you spy a tray packed with blackened nuggets of bone-in bird, grab a few. The charred, superbly seasoned pieces of dark meat will restore your faith in tandoori chicken, so often dry and insipid. There are other fowl pleasures on that buffet, too, including a chicken saag with a creeping heat and a lovely floralness that borders on acidity. Even the goat liver may surprise you: The full-throated curry puts that unruly offal in its place without gagging its chalky qualities altogether.
The servers at Dera — respectful, helpful, mindful that non-Pakistanis may not revel in the pain of chili powders — seem to be on a never-ending mission to push the buffet on customers. It makes sense: A dining room full of steam-table grazers eases the burden on the kitchen. But the strategy will ultimately lead to a diminished experience if you don’t, on occasion, push back against the buffet totalitarianism and order off the actual menu, where the chef has tucked some of his best grill and tandoor work.
Pakistan shares America’s love of meat, and it shows here. Rubani’s lamb chops, their Frenched bones protected by foil, flash the same vicious, delicious char that scars the tandoori chicken. Each chop, at once tender and biting, delivers all the bone-gnawing satisfaction you could desire. The booti bihari kebabs may give your jaw a workout, but the boneless ribbons of beef reward the effort with a spice blend front-loaded with garlic. The chapli kebabs are not the standard meat torpedoes pulled from a skewer. They’re closer to ground beef patties, crisped up and concealing small bursts of controlled pungency.
Mohammad “Atta” Ali, the chef’s brother and Dera’s manager, points out that Pakistani dishes tend to be spicier than those in northern India, whose cooking shares more than a little DNA with its neighbor. One bite of Dera’s chicken naan or its chicken pakora, and you know the truth of this statement. The latter, these flaming strips of coated and fried chicken, are so hot they could make you beg for a bucket of Buffalo wings.
But here’s the more pertinent takeaway: Long overshadowed by Indian cuisine in the United States, Pakistani cooking has begun to stake out its own turf. You can see it in Brookfield Plaza. Pakistanis don’t yet have a monopoly on the shopping center, as the Vietnamese do at the Eden Center, and some businesses still align themselves with their more established Indian peers. But Dera feels like a trailblazer: a terrific Pakistani restaurant that clearly articulates its own identity.
7030 Spring Garden Dr., Springfield, Va., 703-866-2233, deraspringfield.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Franconia-Springfield, with a two-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $2.94 to $7.99 for appetizers and salads; entrees $9.95-$26.95