One of the great pleasures of exploring a suburban strip is finding new international food treasures. In Kenner, often tucked away in nondescript buildings, I've come across exciting Chinese, Honduran, Palestinian, Brazilian and Vietnamese restaurants. I always come back hungry for more.
Recently, I dined at Wah Kitchen, named for the owners' hometown in Pakistan. The tiny storefront sits in the rear of a strip mall on Veterans Memorial Boulevard and is easy to miss.
It's no surprise that the owners know their way around the kitchen. Chef Ghazala Khan worked for years as the chef at a Marriott hotel in Pakistan, and her husband, Masroor Khan, was one of the opening partners at Shyan's Kitchen in Metairie.
To start, puffy rounds of naan are stuffed with everything from melted cheese to crispy, browned garlic and cilantro. Vegetable pakoras filled with fluffy potatoes, onions and spinach are lacy and light, not laden with grease like some versions. Dunked in an accompanying fiery cumin and chili-specked dipping sauce, they are downright addictive.
Though the restaurant's simple and sparse decor seems to suit the strip-mall setting, intricate serving vessels and tableware and polite service make for a more polished dining experience. The staff here consists of the owners and one server, so diners should be prepared to wait during a lunch rush.
Most of the dishes will ring familiar to those accustomed to Indian and Pakistani establishments. There's a selection of naan, tandoori dishes, many vegetable dishes, curries, creamy masala sauces and large plates of steaming basmati rice. Here, those rice dishes are decorated with jalapeno slivers, cilantro and caramelized shallots, a nice touch that breathes life and color into the otherwise monochromatic staple.
Those same toppings — plus a sprinkling of whole cloves — also adorn a large platter of goat biryani, one of the most flavorful and memorable dishes here. Tucked beneath the aromatic, saffron-tinged rice are soft hunks of stewed goat, an earthy and spicy dish that fares well with a cooling house-made cucumber and yogurt raita.
The owners adjust spice levels according to diners' requests, and some of the milder options include a simple saag paneer, in which the spinach is wrapped around tiny chunks of paneer cheese, and a hearty take on channa dal, with fat yellow lentils cooked till creamy and spiced with ginger and garlic.
Smoked chicken masala, one of Khan's specialties, was one of the most flavorful dishes I came across. The smoked chicken bits swam in a thick and creamy sauce dotted with slicks of crimson chili oil. It tasted smoky without being overpowering, and tiny cilantro florets help awaken the palate.
A refreshing mango lassi was the perfect coolant to ease some of the meal's spicy burn, but on a recent chilly afternoon, steaming cups of unsweetened chai provided welcoming warmth and a mid-day boost. After a meal, diners should order gulab jamun, tiny deep-fried dough confections dipped in a sweet rose water syrup and dusted with coconut flakes.
I can't think of a better way to beat the cold than with the delicious and warming spice-tinged dishes like those at Wah Kitchen, and the restaurant offers a reason for curious diners to get out there and explore.