Hunt for pink roohafza

Shaz Restaurant

4333 Airport Dr.
Sacramento, CA 95821

(916) 488-8840

It takes gumption and concentration to eat at Shaz. Better find some or finding this Pakistani Indian eatery will prove elusive. Off Longview and Watt Avenue, North Highlands-ish, past a restaurant-supply joint, a right on the inaptly named 100-yard Airport Drive, left into a large, razor-wire-protected parking lot where a tabby basks under a bevy of truck cabs, keep driving to the far end, breathe a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.

At lunch, the British-accented matriarch aggressively touts the comprehensive buffet. Lunchtime buffets seem to be a prerequisite to owning and operating a restaurant that has dal, tandoori or pulses on its menu. And as further evidence of the rampant collusion among Indian restaurant owners, nearly all the buffets hover around $8.99. If they were oil-company executives instead of samosa slingers, it would be off to the pokey for the lot of them.

What isn’t uniform about the buffets—and Indian restaurants for that matter—is the caliber of the cooking. Shaz scores well in this category. One of the pleasures of Indian food, which became a bigger part of the Lucas family dinner vocabulary when the boss turned vegetarian, is the panoply of spices, whose tastes are unique in isolation and irresistible when combined.

The varied offerings of the buffet are a case study. Again, as evidence of collusion, the apparently obligatory chafing dish of tandoori chicken. Why? In the average Indian restaurant it’s arid and, certainly relative to other Indian dishes, bland. At Shaz, not so dry and not so bland.

Two slots over is a stellar lentil soup. Two chafing dishes the other way is a saag in which the spinach tussles with the chicken for space, not a routine characteristic of most saags, which tend toward the spinach-centric.

This day’s dal is dalightful. The mint chutney is cool and zippy—“a little spicy,” as the hand-lettered sign next to it describes.

Among the signature Pakistani dishes are karahi—tomatoey with onions and ginger—and korma with its cashew-based gravy.

One beef: A sign indicates that there is mutton curry which, although tasty, is not mutton. It’s goat. While one Web definition says in some Eastern nations mutton, from the French mouton, can also mean goat, the dozen or more other definitions say it is the meat of a senior sheep, one that is more than 12 months old, gets the discount at movie theaters and cashes their Sheep Security Insurance check on the first of each month. East or West, calling goat mutton is a big slap in the kisser to the goats of this world, which are the most consumed meat on the planet.

It is a good goat curry, although it inevitably calls to mind the joke where the Irish priest asks the congregation if anyone has ever had sex with a ghost. An elderly man inches up his hand. “Seamus O’Reilly! You’ve had sex with a ghost?”

Hand cupped at his ear, the old man replies, “Sorry, Father, I thought you said goat.”

Dinner, dandy Don Wilcox and I try to run the table. Crispy vegetable samosas, onion naan—not oniony enough, but nothing ever is for me; achar mutton, cooked with tart pickles; the tandoori mixed grill, at $14.99 by far the most expensive menu offering; saag paneer, with chunks of homemade cheese; aloo paratha stuffed with mildly spiced potatoes. Speaking of stuffed, this is more than even two large men can manage—and it’s still under $50.

We also enjoy roohafza, which the menu reveals is the legendary “syrup of the East.” The original 1907 mixture included mint, carrot, spinach, pineapple, watermelon and roses. Don’s reaction: “looks like Pepto but delightful.” The patriarch, who sees to our needs, says in India it’s usually drank in the late afternoon or after dinner.

The winning charm and authenticity far outweigh the challenges of finding Shaz. And if it proves difficult to find, just keep the eye on the prize and drive on.