At the table beside us, eight young South Asian men, dressed almost alike in black T-shirts, sit down long after closing time. Their food emerges from the kitchen almost immediately: large dishes of intensely red stews with stacks of chapati. They had obviously called ahead. Their cellphones rang constantly in a symphony the whole time they were there.
This is unlike our own welcome at the 4-year-old Kabab & Tandoor. The first time we called the tiny spot, near the intersection of Main Street in Waltham, the person who answered the phone didn't say the restaurant name. In fact, he was so unhelpful we were reluctant to venture forth.
On a recent visit, a group of us sat down at a table (a table, by the way, that hadn't been cleaned after the last customers), and a waitress whose apron needed to be changed told us we couldn't eat there; we'd have to take out. Now, this is a tiny spot - 15 seats - and every seat in the house was empty. A few minutes later, she returned to tell us that we could stay. Owner Syed Bokhary told me later on the phone that the table cloths were at the laundry.
Did it seem like we'd be too much trouble? Perhaps she was put off by the fact that we didn't know the difference between shami kebab and sheek kebab.
In fact, shami kebab ($3.99) is ground beef with onion and yogurt, shaped into disks. The beef has been cooked, then shaped, and they resemble portobellos. Despite their slightly unappetizing appearance, they're surprisingly delicious. So is almost everything we try. Sheek kebab, made in the tandoor oven, are crispy logs of ground chicken shaped around skewers. This and the other kebabs are unadorned.
To begin, we munch on mirchi ($1.25), hot green peppers coated in a chickpea batter and deep fried. They taste terrific after you recover from the initial heat. Onion pakora ($1.25) are wispy patties of spinach, lentils, and tomatoes.
The cuisine here is the authentic food of Hyderabad, in the South of India, where Bokhary is from. All the meat is halal.
Stars on the menu include the thin chapati, which has a yellow color from a mixture of spices and is as large as a plate. When you tear it, you can see flaky layers of dough. We also devour onion paratha ($2.50), large fried flatbreads rounds filled with browned onions.
Creamy mixed veg curry ($5.99), with potatoes, peas, green beans, and chickpeas, is a mild mixture. The house special, listed as "chicken Hyd" ($10.99), is another creamy curry flavored with yogurt, but it's not overwhelmingly spicy. Tandoor chicken ($9.99) with onions and parsley turns out slightly dry.
A superb chicken biryani ($8.99) comes studded with large pieces of poultry on the bone imbedded in the rice; vegetable biryani ($4.99) is dressier, made with tiny green vegetables and topped with saffron.
I can't resist leaning over to ask the young men what they're eating. "Chicken 65," one of them tells me. "It's very, very hot. This is the favorite dish of Babson Park." The Park, he explains, includes Babson College, where they're all from. My tablemates are giving me their quit-interrogating eye, so I don't know for a fact that they're all from Hyderabad. I suspect they are, and this is the cooking they get homesick for, and that's why they get special treatment.
Now that we know shami from sheek, perhaps our greeting next time will be a bit warmer.