Border conflict

Mehran Restaurant and Catering

2333 Fair Oaks Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95825

(916) 568-0494

One of the first things my friends and I noticed about Mehran, a new restaurant occupying the former quarters of Bravo Ristorante Italiano on Fair Oaks Boulevard, was that the menu boldly proclaims, “Pakistani/Indian Cuisine” on the front. What, we asked our waiter, were the differences? Were there both Indian and Pakistani items on the menu, and if so, which were which? He couldn’t say, and after some hedging, he fetched the proprietor.

It turns out that this menu—and the proprietor—is proudly Pakistani. (I assume the presence of “Indian” on the menu is there, at least in part, to draw in customers who may be more familiar with the concept of Indian food than with Pakistani.) Indians, he said, overuse spices and artificial colorings; Pakistani food uses the minimum of spices to create a flavor. In addition, he noted that he used “kosher” meat—meaning, I supposed, halal.

We asked him to point us to a few dishes on the menu that would show off the differences: What items was he particularly proud of?

“I am proud of all my menu,” he said, and with good reason. It’s interesting, with several items I haven’t often seen elsewhere: tandoori mutton chops; a beef stew called nihari; and karahi gosht, a goat curry listed under the section “The Delectable Curries.” The owner, in fact, pointed us straight to this dish, and we took him up on it, as well as on chicken tikka masala and vegetable jalfrezi (mixed vegetables). We also tried some vegetable pakoras to start, palak paneer (the often-seen dish of spinach with homemade cheese) and two kinds of naan.

It seemed like a lot when we ordered, but prices here are low (most dishes were in the $5-to-$8 range), and it turns out portions are restrained, so ordering widely is a good strategy. Aside from the short list of appetizers and the curry and vegetable dishes, there are also “charcoal specialties” (tandoor and kebab dishes) and several biryanis, which we did not try. They have some wine and beer, though they are not listed on the menu, and getting specifics about them from the proprietor, who does not drink, was not easy. My friend got a Taj Mahal.

The pakoras arrived first, along with three accompaniments: a fresh herb- and yogurt-based sauce, a thin sweet-tart reddish chutney (I think it was tamarind-based) and a small cup of raita. The big basket of pakoras was a great starter. Each fritter was crunchily fried on the outside, not at all heavy, and pleasantly dryish and mealy within, with plenty of spices (including lots of coriander seeds, to which I’m partial) and mixed vegetables.

After that, a feast arrived in short order. The goat curry was a hit, well-spiced and full of chunks of succulently flavorful meat. It was a fairly dry curry, without much sauce, but there was quite a bit of oil floating in the dish that I could have done without. The chicken tikka masala was almost exactly its opposite: very saucy, with the smooth creaminess that’s typical for the dish, but with slightly dry chunks of white-meat chicken that didn’t add much. This version was not as sweet as many I’ve had, and it had a lovely complexity of flavor despite its mildness. The sauce was perfect for sopping up with our naan.

The naan itself arrived hot and freshly cooked, but not quite as tenderly blistered as some other versions I’ve tried. We had both plain and onion naan, the latter unfortunately missing the menu’s promised topping of cilantro. Our other starchy accompaniment, the basmati rice, was perhaps just a touch greasy but was a nice base for the curries.

The palak paneer was a buttery-smooth, very pleasing version of the common dish. The chunks of crumbly cheese offset the subtle spicing of the spinach. I was less pleased by the vegetable jalfrezi, a mix of many vegetables, some rather overcooked. The flavors tasted muddied. A thick and tangy tomato-y sauce added an acidic note, but that didn’t brighten the flavor as much as one might wish.

Perhaps because we had so much food to confront, our server was absent for some time and was a bit difficult to summon back to clear our empty plates and take a dessert order. The restaurant filled up some—mainly with large South Asian families, always a good sign—while we were there, so perhaps the increased busyness explains the disappearing act.

We ordered a couple of little desserts to share—kheer, a rice pudding; and gulab jaman, fried dough balls with syrup. The kheer was creamy, lightly sweet and unobjectionable, though of the menu’s promised “pistachios, almonds, and raisins,” we found only almonds. The gulab jaman I quite liked. The rosewater syrup was not overly perfumed, but nicely subtle. Still, a couple of bites were plenty to end the meal.

Mehran has made over the old Bravo space dramatically. The dining room is open, lined with mirrors and painted in a bold rose-and-orange color scheme, with chair cushions to match. Good smells of spices waft over the parking lot, and the greeting at the door is equally welcoming. It’s worth a visit to sample the cuisine. Just remember that the emphasis is on Pakistani, not Indian.