Past a huge vat of bloated yellow-green pickles, beyond a top-sliding freezer case containing Mexican helados, and further back still from a deli case partially filled with luncheon meats and a box of dried dates, you’ll find Al-Maida, a new halal Pakistani food restaurant within A & Sons, a corner store in North Oakland.
A vinyl menu hangs on the back wall of the market listing Al-Maida’s offerings: more than 30 dishes including tandoori items, wraps, curries and biryanis, fried pakora and samosas. Two offerings — a Philly cheesesteak and hamburger with fries — stick out like sore thumbs, apparently vestiges of the market’s last hot-food vendor that are just too popular to eliminate completely. A black letter-board at the ordering counter announces the specials of the day.
Once you’re ready to order, owner Sayed Muhammad, or sometimes members of his family, including his young son Adil and son-in-law Umair, will take your order. Muhammad, a friendly man with an infectious smile framed by a white beard, opened Al-Maida in March, but the business has only been operating continuously for the last 1-1/2 months because some minor repairs in the shop were required shortly after opening. And then came Ramadan, a Muslim holiday marked by 30 days of fasting that, this year, ended on June 14.
Muhammad, a Berkeley resident who emigrated from Afghanistan in 1999, was once a cook at Chaat Café in Berkeley and Fremont. He also drove cabs for a while in San Francisco. But when he heard about the vacancy at A & Sons from the store’s landlord, a fellow member of his mosque, he decided it was time to open his own restaurant.
My first visit to Al-Maida was on bike so I decided on take-out. I ordered the lamb kebab wrap ($8.99); my partner got the veggie falafel wrap ($7.99) — both easy to transport back home. I had a good feeling when I saw Muhammad threading chunks of marinated lamb onto a metal rod and had an even better feeling when I witnessed him placing the meat-loaded rod into the pit-like tandoor oven located just behind the counter. The tandoor also cooked the naan he used to wrap our sandwiches.
At home, we tucked in. The lamb sandwich, which comes with shredded lettuce, tomato and cucumber, was so flavorful that I immediately exclaimed, “Wow!” Although the sandwich was wrapped tightly in foil like a burrito, juices escaped and dripped down my hand, but I didn’t stop eating, except to let my partner have a taste. We both agreed that the falafel wrap was fine, but paled in comparison to the tender, spice-laden lamb sandwich.
On my second visit, I decided to dine in and try one of the specials. Because the lamb was so good, I knew I had to try the goat karahi special ($8.99). Karahi is a stew that’s popular in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. It’s named after the round metal pot used to cook the dish, and is often made with chicken, lamb or goat. At Al-Maida, the dish is served with a plate of basmati rice or naan and a red cabbage and onion salad.
Dining in at Al-Maida means sitting at one of two round tables in the middle of the market, next to metal wire shelves of off-brand digestive cookies and packaged Arab foods, like packages of halva and Turkish delight, jars of grape leaves and tahini. Food is made to-order by Muhammad, so there is a bit of a wait. While he prepared my food, I pored over the packages of unfamiliar products nearby, especially the striking boxes of Al-Kbous Yemeni tea featuring an illustrated portrait of a proud young man donning a cap and gown. Every few minutes, shoppers would come and go, sidling past me, usually to get to the refrigerated drinks.
Muhammad brought out my food on a mix of wares — a utilitarian plastic white dish for the rice, a kidney-shaped glass bowl for a side salad and an elegant ceramic bowl with a floral print and gilded edge that held the goat stew. A plastic fork and spoon were given as eating and serving utensils and plastic squeeze bottles filled with raita and cilantro-mint chutney were offered as condiments.
The tomato-based stew was fragrant, warming and savory. Not overly thick, but a good consistency for dipping naan or spooning over rice. The chunks of bone-in goat were flavorful and tender, but not quite fall-off-the-bone. Because the plastic fork and spoon weren’t quite sturdy enough, I ended up picking up a few pieces with my hand to clean off the meat from irregularly shaped bones. Although a few small whole red and green Thai chilis swam in the curry, it isn’t as spicy as some Indian and Pakistani food can be, something that Muhammad explained is to his personal preference, but also that of his core customers, many of whom are from the local Arab and black communities in the neighborhood.
This week, I headed back for the lamb biryani ($8.99) and met Joe. A barber in San Francisco, Joe makes regular trips to North Oakland, where he grew up, to visit his ailing mom, and these days, to get food at Al-Maida. Joe said he always gets lamb here, but when I asked him if he’s had the biryani, he admitted he hadn’t so he ordered a plate too. We sat at different tables but talked to each other over a very loud television that someone in the market was watching and a whirring blender manned by Muhammad’s son-in-law. He remarked on the tenderness of the lamb and the flavor of cardamom that shines through in the dish. I focused on the basmati rice, which was perfectly cooked, fragrant with cumin seeds and speckled unevenly with yellow and orange hues so that some grains looked like skinny flecks of candy corn.
While we ate, Muhammad brought us each a piece of chicken, fresh from the tandoor to try. I took a bite and loved the intense smoky grilled flavor from the clay oven that seeped through-and-through into the tender meat. But I could only nibble before giving up. The plates at Al-Maidi are very generous. I had barely put a dent in my rice, and even Joe, an imposing figure of a man, had not cleared his plate, perhaps because he was on a diet (he did mention it twice). We both packed up our remaining chicken and biryani to-go, more than happy to savor these later at home.
Al-Maidi opens around noon to 8 p.m. daily.