Picture a free-living Pathan tribesman on Pakistan's northwest frontier. He takes a handful of chopped meat, spices it vigorously and tosses it onto the grill. Pressing the meat flat with a big, rough hand, he cooks it to a sizzling, earthy brown. This is chaplee kebab , and you can have it at Bundoo Khan, a new Pakistani restaurant in mid Los Angeles.
Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province is mountainous land adjoining Afghanistan. In this rugged terrain, even vegetables are boldly cooked. Strong notes of vinegar, lemon juice and ginger turn a combination of ordinary produce such as cauliflower, broccoli and carrots into a dish that demands respect. And frontier gosht adds powerful seasonings to beef cubes grilled Pathan style.
Away from the frontier, food is pretty zesty too, judging by the rest of Bundoo Khan's menu. Karahi gosht can be downright dangerous if you bite into one of the small green chiles simmered with this lamb dish. The grilled morsels of beef called boti kebab are thick with spice paste, and seekh kebab shows how spices can electrify ground beef.
Even the vegetable samosas are exciting thanks to bright seasonings that include dried pomegranate seeds, cumin and garam masala. Another vegetable dish, aloo palak , includes spinach that might have been too hot for Popeye. The spinach hides little cubes of potato, and its dark hue shows off a scattering of golden channa dal , one of the pulses that add protein to Indian vegetarian dishes.
One has to admire a fledgling restaurant (it opened in June) that is courageous enough to serve this intensely flavored food rather than taming it down for average palates.
Pakistan is an Islamic state, and Bundoo Khan is Islamic right down to the sign by the door that warns against the drinking of alcoholic beverages. The flowing Arabic inscriptions on the wall plaques are passages from the Koran. And the menu makes it clear that the food is halal , meaning acceptable to Muslims. Meats come from animals that have been slaughtered according to Islamic precepts; pork is excluded.
A rare Muslim dish that Bundoo Khan offers occasionally is haleem , a highly seasoned puree that includes whole wheat, three kinds of lentils and beef. The texture and flavor call to mind refried beans, but instead of cheese, the dish is garnished with fried onion shreds and ginger. Another special dish, nihari , features shreddy beef in a dark sauce that has a strong note of cloves. Ginger shreds and sliced hot green chiles augment the spices.
Ready-made masalas (spice mixtures) for nihari and haleem are available down the street at the Islamic Food Mart, which is the source of Bundoo Khan's meats. The masalas , imported from Pakistan, come with recipes in English and Arabic. The market also stocks Pakistani mango chutney, which the restaurant serves along with its own tamarind and mint chutneys.
What Bundoo Khan lacks is a tandoor oven, but you wouldn't know that from tasting the tangy, red-tinted chicken tikka . Whole roast chargha chicken curiously had very little flavor, although the seasonings included finely ground jalapenos , cilantro, mint, cloves and peppercorns.
Instead of tandoori breads there are chapatis so large they have to be folded into the bread basket and parathas that are browned in oil to make the exterior crisp and flaky. Pistachio kulfi (ice cream) is far from mild. The flavoring that will make you wonder what you are tasting is kewra essence, which even in small quantities gives the effect of eating lumber in a pine forest. Here the dose is small enough to mute that woodsy quality.
Except for a large chargha chicken at $20 and a whole roast leg of lamb for $50, the prices at Bundoo Khan are low. Most entrees, including the chaplee kebab , haleem and nihari , are $6.95. Two large samosas are $2, and aloo palak and frontier vegetables are each $3.95. Another dish worth trying is lamb biryani , a combination of lamb and rice for $6.95.
Bundoo Khan, 116 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 380-7574. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Free parking in the shopping center lot.