Enthusiasm for chef Guddu Haider's homestyle Indian food has reached triple exclamation points, based on recent buzz around Guddu de Karahi, which recently opened in the Sunset.
Last spring, the chef left the San Francisco dining scene, having sold his old spot, Lahore Karahi. People mourned the loss, and it wasn't just the chili high they mourned.
Happily, the new spot is infused with personality, specifically Haider's personality. And even though there's a bounty of local options for Indian dining, all the way down to the South Bay, Guddu de Karahi is well worth a try.
It's a small, no-frills spot with a quiet hum, and the food shines. Haider cooks every dish using recipes from his Punjabi mother.
On any given night, the front doors might open into a cloud of smoke. Smoke has a way of erupting from tables around the room that reminds me of the mouth of hell. It roils and climbs the walls. Yet the smoke — heavenly and heady, from cast-iron plates full of tandoor — drives salivary glands to work overtime.
Most often, the cast-iron plates are filled with the perennially popular fish tandoori, which is delicate and golden, with a faint hint of char and jolts of tartness from the liberal use of coriander.
But for our table, the celestial vapors came from an unsung dish, lamb boti. The spiced ground lamb kebabs came piping-hot, the sliced onions sizzling and blackened. One bite and I was well-hooked. The tang of the yogurt marinade complemented the natural tang of the meat, the tandoori oven's smoky savor harmonized with the lamb's earthiness and the tongue-tickling chilies played a high note.
All the flavors lingered on the palate, leaving complex trails of perfume and spice. It was head-trip-inducing — not to mention the crunchy, crispy, sweetly grilled onions, which stuck to the plate like a delicious afterthought. We scraped the plate clean.
Another haunting delight: the combination of seasoned rice — spiced with cinnamon and toasted cumin — and the tart and fiery chicken vindaloo. Each dish is accomplished, fresh and bold in its own right, but the zip of the vindaloo plus the softly perfumed rice was a match made in heaven.
Other dishes were not so complementary. The mixed vegetables were deftly executed and had various textures; some vegetables cooked to puree; some caramelized; and some, like cauliflower, in large tender chunks you could sink your teeth into. But the green peppers gave the dish a little bitterness.
With sweeter tomato-based curries, such as the chicken tikka masala or the shahi paneer (another winner, with a pronounced nutty sweetness and pleasantly squeaky cheese cubes), it fared well. But when partnered with tangier dishes, like the vindaloo, it fell flat.
Another welcome touch is the free chai, deeply brewed and very useful for quelling the fires set off by the liberal dose of chili in the dishes. I found medium-spicy to be just that — never painful, but still palpable.
Service can be uneven — Haider cooks every dish himself — but the waitstaff is nice and lulls are quickly forgiven once the bright, mysterious dishes show up on the table. In fact, everything is forgotten but the food.
Guddu de Karahi
Location: 1501 Noriega St. (at 22nd Avenue), S.F.
Contact: (415) 759-9088, www.guddudekarahi.com
Recommended dishes: Lamb boti ($8.99), shahi paneer ($7.50), Guddu de Kahari rice ($2), chicken vindaloo ($7.99)
Price range: $6.50 to $13.99
Hours: Noon to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major