You can tell a great dish or cuisine by the many legends and fuzzy stories surrounding its beginnings. Today, we offer such a meal, one that comes from humble origins and yet has satisfied kings and presidents alike.
Biryani is a long-grain rice dish infused with spices, meats and yogurt. It can be found on many menus of the smaller, more authentic Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants in our area. Often the offerings include a choice of chicken, lamb, beef, seafood or vegetables, but some restaurants in India have boasted up to 50 combinations of biryani. Almost always the dish is abundant, often big enough to feed more than one hungry person. It generally costs less than a McDonald's combo meal.
Its origins are thought to be Persian, but the dish traveled well across to northern India and to other exotic points that now make their own versions of biryani.
Biryani can be simple or complex. The ingredients are slowly cooked in their own juices and steam, allowing herbs and spices to fully infuse the meat and rice, preserving the nutrition and intensifying the flavors. The grains of rice are cooked thoroughly, yet the test of a good biryani is if the rice are completely separate. Often biryani is served with chutney and raita, a seasoned yogurt sauce.
For today's Toque challenge we seek out two excellent examples of biryani. Enter the worthy opponents, which have been filtered through the usual trial-and-error of rapid-fire dining over several days: Chameli Restaurant and the California chain Chaat Cafe.
My typical go-to place for biryani in the past year has been a small cafe in a Pakastani grocery, Indo-Pak Supermarket, located across from Chameli on Polk Street in Richardson. When I first started going to Indo-Pak's cafe, biryani cost about 2.99 a plate. I think it has since gone up a quarter.
I always enjoyed Indo-Pak's version, but it tended to be a bit greasy at times.
My first stop today is Chameli. I have spied this place for some time, and it is always filled with local Bangladeshi patrons. As many have noted in the City of Ate, when it comes to ethnic foods, it's best to eat where the natives eat.
Chameli is clean and somewhat large compared with other biryani houses I have visited. The menu has all the usual suspects you might come to expect from an Indian-inspired restaurant: kabob rolls, korma (braised meats in a yogurt-based sauce), tikka (grilled meats) and samosas. There are also plenty of house-made breads such as naan and paratha. And as usual, there are a smattering of vegetarian dishes.
I walk in with a mission and plunk down my few dollars and order the chicken biryani ($3.99). I am pleasantly offered to upgrade to a special version of the rice dish, but stay with the chicken.
The dish takes a bit of time, 15 minutes, so I sit back and enjoy watching the half-packed room enjoy buttered chicken and goat korma. I am a bit jealous, but this is squelched once my biryani arrives.
Steaming and hearty with bone-in chicken and a surprise topping of a spice-soaked boiled egg, I take in the aroma and smile. The bone-in chicken can require some maneuvering, but the added flavor that the bones bring to the biryani makes it worthwhile.
It's undoubtedly the finest example of biryani I have had in ages, and I finish more of the dish than I should since I have another version across town awaiting my belly. I scribble a few notes and take off to Chaat Cafe, located on Preston Road due north of Frankford Road. As I make my way to the location I pass Deli-News and have to slap myself and stay focused. No soup for me!
Walking into Chaat Cafe, you immediately realize you are in a chain operation. I have enjoyed other locations of Chaat Cafe, including the one in Irving where I usually order samosas, pakoras and, invariably, saag paneer -- a creamy spinach dish that is laced with chunks of homemade cheese that is similar to tofu but has more more in common with plain cheese curds.
The menu at Chaat is vast, and the scents from the open kitchen are beckoning, but again I remain true to the task, ordering the chicken biryani ($7.99).
Within minutes I have my dish and pause to snap a few photos. I spin the plate around and notice that it is much larger than that of the competition. I would not be able to conquer this plate single handed and should have called in for reinforcements.
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At first glance, I note much more chicken than in Chameli's version. As I scoop up my first fork full I take in the good seasonings and smile. The smile soon gives way to a frown as I pucker with the overwhelming amount of salt in the rice. I should have sent the plate back. Instead I pack up and venture off to eat another day.
For their fantastic prices, delicately balanced seasoning, and location in the awesome dining section of Richardson, we award today's Toque to Toque biryani bragging rights and the promise of a quick return for seconds to Chameli Restaurant.
Chameli Restaurant 201 S, Greenville #203 Richardson 972-638-9898
Chaat Cafe 18101 Preston Rd. #202 Dallas, TX 972.713.0003