Shalimar - Indian in the Tenderloin
On many reccomendations and one sample of take-out, I finally made it to this dive in one of the most downtrodden 'hoods in SF. I lucked out and got a parking spot within sight lines of the restaurant. Even so, we soaked up some "local flavor" in the fifty foot walk to the door. The experience was like going through a mechanized Indian Meal machine. We walked in and the tumult and fantastic smells dazed us momentarily. There's about ten tables, tons of people and no one seems to be in charge. We finally established that you sit down as soon as something becomes available, and then order up at the counter. When your food is ready, someone brings you the plates. How the guy who takes the orders remembers who gets what is a mystery. In any event, we decided on some tandoori chicken, lamb curry in spinach, dal, a couple of stuffed breads, and some rice. Order placed, communication complete. Next puzzle - Do we need to go find place settings? My girlfriend and I wander up to the counter, eyeing silverware and plates. As we reach for them, one of the staff swoops in and assures us he will bring it to us. Great. We sit, he does. Now water. Same process, more pointing, confusion, eventually it is sorted out and we're back at the table, sipping chilled tap water out of styrofoam.
Same guy swoops in with curry (extra serving delivered by accident will make a fine lunch the next day), chicken, and dal. Bread and rice moments later. From first bite to last, everything is delicious. The menu is not too extensive. It is tempting to order one of each listed - The tandoori chicken is charry and spicy, the curry and dal are both delicious. Plate of lamb chops go by. Definitely getting them next time. Some of the lamb in the curry is still on the bone, and obligingly falls off with a slight poke.
The onion kulcha and stuffed paratha are really exquisite. Extremely fresh tasting, and as they cool, they don't lose flavor or texture. The onions have just enough bite, and the potato filling is smooth and sharp with curry. Even the rice seems to be charmed - It is buttery and tasty, more than just a vehicle for for the main dishes.
We stumble out, very full, a paltry 30 bucks lighter. Somehow we timed it perfectly - There are about a dozen people waiting for tables, and as groups get seated, more people come through the door...
When my father flies in later this week, a return trip may be in order. Location is Jones b/w Geary and O'Farrell - There is a second location on O'Farrell around the corner, called Shalimar Garden. It is apparently normal sit-down and less hectic, same food for a dollar more per dish according to an Indian co-worker goes to one of the two branches at least once a week. At the branch I visited the food was in the $4-$8 range per dish, a couple bucks per serving of rice and bread.
I really like this place. I only found it in the last year, and now get cravings for it all the time. The food is really fresh tasting and it's nice and loaded with lusty spices. And the prices are really cheap.
I eaten there a half dozen times, mostly takeout, as the area is really sleazy at night and I live close enough to get it home piping hot. It can be confusing like Mike Z says. Once I was getting takeout, but there was a big line. There were quite an assortment of people in line, a couple of older Indian guys drinking some brandy out of a paper bag were trying to pick up on two young girls who are first time customers. Finally, I realized that they were all waiting to get seats and I only needed to walk to the counter to order.
You order (for here or to go) from the really tall guy, who doesn't look at you and sometimes says no to thing without explanation. You can't figure how he keeps track of everything. It may take 15 minutes or so to get your order, so be patient--it will be fresh. Behind the tall guy there are dozens of other guys cooking and pulling and hanging long skewers of meat and chicken.
Five tandori dishes, 5 curries, 5 vegetable dishes, bread, rice. No raita, which is too bad. I usually make some because the food is spicy, but that seems to vary from visit to visit. I usually get the tandori chicken and the lamb in butter and spices, nan and rice. I'm getting in a rut, must try other things--like that parantha and onion kulcha mentioned). I tried the spinach and potato dish but didn't like it too much to potatos were waxy and not nice but the spinach was OK. I have not been able to catch the lamb chop tandori yet.
Shalimar is the best indian (Pakistani?) food I have ever had, bar none. The beef boti (spicy beef on a skewer), the lamb curry with a few bones, the chicken tandoor, the piping hot naan, the free chai...my mouth waters. By the way, the little place a few doors up towards Geary was wonderful and uncrowded.
The tall guy with the moustache at Shalimar can be charmed, but it took me many visits. Once he knew my face, he actually said hello, whereas before, he refused to even look at me. Also a good idea to tip the "waiters", who really appreciate it. Bills are added up on the fly, and rounded (but accurate I have found).
Procedure: Just select your table, then go to counter and tell him what you want plus what table you are at. Get silverware yourself. Get free chai from two mugs located next to the cooler. Get pitchers of water from the cooler....enjoy.
Don't drive, it's useless trying to find parking. Best bet is to walk up Geary from Union Square. Don't even think of coming at night, it's scary. Women traveling alone shouldn't come during the day, if you ask me. But don't worry, it's worth it!!!!