Shalimar Restaurant in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
“There ain’t nothin’ tenduh ‘bout the Tenderloin,” Wajahat Ali declares with a smirk as he welcomes me to San Francisco’s red-light district.
A Bay Area playwright, humorist, and lawyer, Mr. Ali, 31, also happens to be a consummate foodie. He is a self-styled expert on the best chai, fish masala, and gulabjamun in town, and if his taste buds are to be believed, this godforsaken stretch is where to find them: within a two-block radius in this notoriously seedy neighborhood, I spot five Indian-Pakistani establishments, each overflowing with hungry customers. In fact, many now call it the Tandoori-loin.
As I glance around what’s possibly San Francisco’s last bastion against gentrification, his spin on comedian David Chappelle’s old quote reverberates in my head.
The candy-coated gloss of nearby Union Square has given way to squalid single-occupancy hotels and sketchy massage parlors. The city’s signature Victorian architecture acquires a patina of dust and grime as the blocks become progressively more run-down, aided by boarded-up windows and graffiti-tagged walls. A man in a tattered orange sweatshirt materializes, offering unsolicited parking assistance — for a tip, of course, which Mr. Ali deftly negotiates. A woman in a sparkly dress showcasing ample cleavage — it’s 2 p.m., for the record — murmurs to a man in a three-piece suit who might easily be her pimp.
Tender it is not.
But Mr. Ali has not brought me here to navigate the thriving drug-retail scene; we are, instead, on an unlikely quest for good kababs. Our first stop is the area’s desi pioneer. Opened in 1994, Shalimar now boasts three locations and a mammoth sign declaring it one of America’s top 50 restaurants — a lofty claim for a nondescript eatery with fluorescent lighting and an alarming profusion of flies. Mr. Ali fondly recalls late-night treks being a rite of passage when he was a student at Berkeley. “The first time, we were like, ‘Why are you taking us to this hellhole?’” It quickly became a case of baptism by chai for him; today he’s a regular, walking straight to the counter, warmly greeting the staff, and grabbing a cup as casually as if this were his neighborhood Starbucks.
When owner Mohammad Hammad opened this flagship, he was attracted to the understandably cheap rent and saw a niche in the South Asian market for dhaba fare catering to a lower-income crowd. “I give them the prices of McDonald’s,” he says. And the neighborhood’s location, by the Theater District, became a bonus, luring all types of gastronauts. Mr. Hammad says he’s never had problems with the questionable characters engaged in less-than-legal dealings populating the neighborhood. “People were scared to come before, but now we have customers from all over the Bay.”
I swat away flies to get a clearer look at my fellow diners: South Asian families spanning generations, hipsters on dates, yuppies in business casual, all feasting on generous servings of chicken makhni. Steve Johnson, a frequent patron, has brought a first-timer to sample “the usual”: tandoori chicken and seekh kababs downed with airy naans. “When you find something good, you stick with it,” he says. “It’s great food at a great price.” And the neighborhood? “We don’t come to walk around — it’s not a tourist area.”
Across the street, Chutney is the “fine-dining” establishment of the lot: “Where you can take someone for a business meeting and not smell like khorma,” Mr. Ali notes. According to manager Arfan Muhammad, “The area is bad but it’s not going to stop people from coming.” He attributes recent improvements to a foot patrol of officers paid by the community to police the neighborhood.
When asked to pick a favorite joint, Mr. Ali demurs. “Each one is like your child, each has something about it,” he says.
His “children” love him, too. He takes me two blocks down O’Farrell, where Zulfiqar “Guddu” Haider gets his sabzi in order before opening Lahore Karahi for the evening rush. Recognizing Mr. Ali, one of his favorite customers, through the shuttered windows, he invites us in for some kheer and gossip.
At Pakwaan — which Mr. Ali commends for its naans — Ian Linke, a chef and Tenderloin resident, grabs some nihari with a friend. “Five years ago it was really sketchy — my neighbor got stabbed to death,” he says matter-of-factly. While the area has gotten safer, he’s happy to see the food remains solid. “The restaurants have stayed true to their roots, that’s the best aspect of this neighborhood,” he says.
Despite the Tenderloin’s dubious first impression, Mr. Ali — who claims to have witnessed a crack deal here (”It just had a crack-y vibe to it,” he says) — is proud of its unique place in the city’s culinary scene. “The Tenderloin is now synonymous with authentic South Asian cuisine. It’s a cultural epicenter for San Francisco.”
While it may be grittier than Nob Hill or Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s going to take more than some crime to stop avid diners — perhaps those succulent kababs are literally to die for? As one European regular at Shalimar says, “Sometimes people get killed, but you don’t base your life on fear!”
Sarah Khan is an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine in New York. You can read more of her work at www.bysarahkhan.com or follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BySarahKhan.