When you think about Dallas restaurants that have become institutions — beloved, legendary, even historic — which restaurants come to mind? The French Room and The Mansion have been bastions of the fine-dining scene for decades, even if their relevance is now almost entirely diminished. Teppo was the birthplace of our Japanese culinary movement. For neighbors of Greenville Avenue, The Grape is an easy answer.
For many of North Texas’ Muslims, the answer is equally straightforward. Al Markaz has been serving generous portions of Indian and Pakistani food in Carrollton since 1996, and many a Dallasite recalls growing up in a childhood full of visits to this restaurant-grocery hybrid. After Friday and Saturday services at the mosque a few blocks down Old Denton Road, the dining room fills with hungry regulars who’ve just finished their prayers. Al Markaz — and especially its $7.50 lunch combo — is well on its way to becoming a Texas legend.
At this time of year, in Ramadan, the dining room at Al Markaz runs like clockwork. An hour before sunset, the place is empty but for one or two tables and a few shoppers in the grocery aisles. A half-hour before the sun goes down, families pour in the front doors, pulling Ziploc bags of dates out of their pockets. Soon almost every tabletop in the house will be stacked high with baskets of fabulous naan and filled edge to edge with kebabs, lentils, stews and loaded-up paper plates.
Place your initial order at the front counter, take a number and sit at a table. At the table you’ll order your drinks or stick with water, whole pitchers of which Al Markaz servers will thoughtfully leave on the table, even if you’re dining solo. They’ll also understand if your appetite gets excited and you decide mid-meal to try one or two extra dishes. Food, meanwhile, starts arriving with thrilling speed.
Many of the regulars order chicken makhani ($10), known in the United States as butter chicken for the ingredient that helps thicken and enrich its sauce. Al Markaz’s chicken makhani, rich and deftly spiced, the sweet tomato held in balance by the complexity of the seasoning, is the kind of food that short-circuits your brain and disarms your self-restraint. There’s simply no choice but to keep spearing tender (not dry) cubes of chicken on your fork and dunking naan into the vividly colored sauce until the dish is empty.
Bones help slow down the pace on Al Markaz’s chicken karahi ($12). (It’s also available boneless for $9, but that’s no fun, is it?) Served in the wide, shallow saucepan it’s cooked with, the chicken breasts, with ribs still attached, are hearty, herby, gently hot and pleasantly salty. In truth, this is just about the spiciest dish at Al Markaz, and it won’t be hot enough to intimidate any but the most sensitive diners.
Any tribute to Al Markaz must include mention of its lunch combo, which is simply one of the most outrageously good deals in the Dallas area. And it’s not a secret: Arrive at Al Markaz around noon on a weekday, and you’ll find a bustling dining room full of business meetings and friends gossiping while they tear into their naan. Hope you don’t mind sitting back in the corner.
For just $7.50 (with tax and a generous tip, it rounds to a still-reasonable $10), the lunch special includes a small “salad” of sliced carrots and white onions, one gorgeous piece of Al Markaz’s wide, pillowy-soft naan and small portions of three different main courses. You get to choose the three mains, which means deliberating between recommendable options like nihari, a single fork-tender slice of beef shank in a stew so richly spiced you’ll sop it all up with naan; keema, a mild, comforting mixture of ground beef and cilantro; dal fry, a bowl of stewed lentils with a carroty hint of sweetness; and dal palak, a less sweet bowl of lentils stirred together with wilted spinach.
Do yourself a favor and skip the vegetable samosa, which arrives only faintly warm and with a soft wrapper folded around a filling that’s almost all potato. In general, Al Markaz pastries are good when fresh-baked, but very rarely are they still fresh, and that’s the problem. Another skip: The boti kebabs, with either chicken or beef, are marinated for so long that their edges turn mushy and the spice rub burns your lips.
If you like your few bites of nihari, you’ll want to come back at dinner for a fuller portion of the meat and a tureen of the intoxicating sauce ($9). And chicken makhani is absent from the lunch combo, another reason to visit Al Markaz at all times of day.
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Besides samosas, there’s one more dish many regulars will tell you not to order: biryani. That’s not because the biryani is bad; at least, our order tasted fine ($10). Outrageously aromatic — the rice’s smell is more intoxicating than its flavor — our biryani platter arrived a vivid orange-yellow, mounded on top of bone-in cuts of mutton.
The problem, if you can call it a problem, is that everybody likes biryani made their own way. It’s a dish as diverse in preparation as macaroni and cheese, and every South Asian restaurant has their own take. So does every South Asian family. Over dinner one evening, a regular visitor confided that he can’t tell his mother about ordering the biryani at Al Markaz, because she’ll demand to know why he didn’t go to her house instead. (We’ll withhold his name in case Mom is reading.)
Not much has changed in this dining room over the past two decades. The place has freshened up with a bit of remodeling. The lunch deal used to be a mere $6. But the naan is still magical, the restaurant still doesn’t have a website and some of the same employees are still behind the counter. And, on any given evening in Ramadan, the crowds will arrive right on time.
Al Markaz, 1205 W. Trinity Mills Road, Carrollton. 972-245-9525. Restaurant open 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday; grocery open daily 10 a.m. until 30 minutes after the kitchen closes.