There are 51 Indian restaurants in the Triangle, by my count, though the number is growing so fast there may be more by the time you read this. The variety is as impressive as the number, spanning the subcontinent from Northern korma to Southern dosa, occasionally venturing across the border for excursions into Pakistan and Nepal — or further still, into East-West fusion territory.
But nobody else does Indian quite like Desi Mazaa. Or Pakistani, for that matter, a cuisine whose shared top billing is reflected on a menu that lists nearly as many beef dishes as chicken.
The beef should come as no surprise after you’ve noted the word “halal” at the top of the menu. But it doesn’t take long to discover that Desi Mazaa’s embrace is broader than its self-described “Indo-Pak Cuisine” label suggests. Broad enough, in fact, that the house specialty bread is Afghani naan, a clay oven-baked flatbread with a texture somewhere between pita and Indian naan.
Even more than the scope of the menu, it’s the food itself that sets Desi Mazaa apart. From familiar curries to exotica such as dahi baray (a chaat-style appetizer of chickpea flour dumplings, yogurt, chiles and tamarind chutney), dishes are earthier and more rustic than typical restaurant presentations. You can’t help but think that this is how people who grew up eating these dishes cook them at home.
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And indeed, Desi Mazaa’s menu is built on a collection of recipes from the home – or more accurately, homes – of owner/chef Afifa Tirmizi. The globe-spanning list of addresses of those homes – her parents were born in India, and she grew up in New York before moving here and opening her first restaurant – go a long way toward explaining Desi Mazaa’s unique offering. She’s quick to tell you that she never went to culinary school, and credits her mother and stepmother with teaching her to cook most of the dishes she now offers – with occasional contributions by a kitchen team whose roots are in Pakistan and the Middle East.
She’s especially proud of lamb tawa kebab, a frequent special that combines elements of multiple cuisines in a single dish: cubes of tandoori-cooked lamb, tender and juicy in a complex blend of sauces (seven of them, according to our helpful server, including mango chutney) brightened with mint and cilantro. Like most dishes, you can specify the spice level, but be advised that if you order it ‘hot” you’ll reap what you sow in the form of chopped bird chiles and deceptively innocuous-looking deep-fried red peppers about the size and shape of marbles.
The appetizer list offers a brief tour of Indo-Pak territory in the space of nine listings, from pakoras (chicken or paneer) to patties (Pakistan’s answer to samosas, filled with shredded beef or chicken). The eclectic offering also includes a couple of riffs on the Indian street food theme, among them a worthy rendition of Bombay chaat masala, a jumble of chickpea flour dumplings, onions, dried fruit and a spicy snack mix blanketed with a sweet-and-savory swirl of yogurt and chutneys.
Entrees are divided into categories by meat (chicken, beef, goat and lamb), with separate sections devoted to vegetarian and rice dishes. Classic curries are respectable, though I’d opt for any other protein over the chicken, which can be dry. If it’s chicken you’re craving, then the butter chicken tikka masala — whose sauce is noticeably darker and, well, more rustic than most — should satisfy.
If you’re open to a little adventure, you won’t be disappointed with beef karahi, a spice-fragrant stew with tomatoes and onions named for the Indian-style wok it’s cooked in. Not adventurous enough? Try goat fry, amped up with garlic, ginger and hot green chiles.
But beware the fried karela (aka bitter gourd), which doesn’t just live up to its name, but is an overachiever in the bitterness department. I can only imagine it’s an acquired taste, but I’m guessing most Western palates would willingly eat this only in order to atone for a sin.
That said, by no means should you overlook the vegetarian entrees. Fried bhindi – okra tossed with tomatoes, sliced jalapeños, fresh mint and cilantro – is a worthy option. Mash dal – lentils simmered in a coppery sauce riddled with cumin seeds and fried onion – is another.
Afifa Tirmizi opened Desi Mazaa in May, transforming a compact counter service space in a Cary strip mall into a jewel box of a dining room with brass candlesticks on lace-draped tables, chairs covered in stretched ruby fabric, and an eclectic collection of Asian art on saffron-colored walls.
The key element missing from the picture (not surprising, really, given the string of restaurants that have come and gone in this space) is customers. Tirmizi is looking to relocate next year – possibly to Garner, maybe as early as February. Regardless of location, the spirit of hospitality she inherited from her late father (“he loved to feed people regardless of culture or religion”) will no doubt continue to set a warmly welcoming mood. Just one more way in which eating at Desi Mazaa feels like visiting someone in their home.
212 Grande Heights Dr., Cary
Cuisine: Indian, Pakistani
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual, warmly inviting jewel box of a space
Noise level: low
Service: warmly welcoming, generally attentive
Recommended: dahi baray, beef karahi, mash dal, lamb tawa kebab (frequent special)
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.