HOUSTON: It’s a haleem kind of love when it comes to cooking with Syed Aamir, owner of Chatkhara Grill. Tall, standing at 6’2”, Syed Aamir hails from Pakistan. The turn to a love for cuisine was unexpected, something Syed has never dreamed about in his life. It was a slow unravelling, much like the way Haleem is made. Haleem’s a special beef dish stew. Haleem gains special significance in the month of Ramadan, when Muslims cook it for Iftaar (daily breaking of the fast). To understand Haleem, you will have to listen to Syed’s version, of how he thinks Haleem should be made. The beef is first slow boiled to tenderness. Six varieties of lentils (dals) and wheat are cooked in separate dishes. The water is drained and the beef is then stirred at its tenderest point, separating the meat into strands of fibers. Special spices are added. Garlic and ginger paste are added. Roasted coriander and cumin powder are added. The six lentils are stirred to a mushy paste along with the beef. The whole process is slow, long and drawn out for seven to eight hours, till the desired consistency sets in. It is served with nan.
Today, Syed Aamir has met his calling in life. He is into delivering the best tasting food from Indian and Pakistani cuisine. Robb Walsh from the Houston Press has dined at Chatkhara Grill anonymously. He has voted Chatkhara’s Chicken Seekh Kabab as one of his top 100 favorites. A recent Houston Desi radio show did an on-air survey got Chatkhara Grill the 2nd highest number of votes for best tasting food and consistency. Syed Aamir could not be happier for Houston’s response. He is a gracious host and full of smiles. But the road to recognition has not been easy.
Armed with a law degree from Pakistan, and interested in the Television Media, he worked 8 years with NTM – Network Television Marketing, in charge of Transmission and Presentation. He helped coordinate and link government programming to stations in 13 cities. He also helped open 4 TV stations. Coming to Houston, he got the opportunity to serve as manager at IHOP, Sugar Land. He shuttled to different branches across Houston. He’s been with IHOP for four years. He has received his accreditation as Certified General Manager from IHOP. He was roped in to be the manager of Fish N’ More at the Hillcroft location for a year, a restaurant that had negative cashflow each month. Taking over, he broke even the first month, saw a profit of $2,000 the second month and took it to profitability.
The Chatkhara Grill journey actually began when World Food Warehouse opened on Hwy 6. Syed Aamir was asked by Mashood, owner, to become Grocery Manager. A few months later, he was asked if he would like to take charge of the instore cafeteria, when Persian Grill closed down in 3 months of its opening. Syed weighed his options, said yes and opened Chatkhara Grill. Chatkhara means tasty and spicy. It means delicious, Aamir wants it that way. It was quite a learning experience for him. “I am thankful to Mashood, owner of World Food Warehouse for all his help.”
Changing chefs at the cafeteria were like changing clothes. They kept leaving on a whim of unauthorized absences. Syed Aamir was left waiting for them to return. He had to shut down the cafeteria on the days they did not come. It cost him money and losses. After getting the hang of firing a few chefs, he breathed easy, hiring new ones. Then he started watching them making dishes. Watching 4 or 5 chefs, he noticed differences in their cooking styles, made copious notes and additions of his own. When the new chefs he hired started coming in late, Syed started trying his hand at making food. He checked for consistency in taste each time he made a dish. His diners started noticing the difference in taste and started coming back. The chefs were caught off guard that Syed Aamir now had learnt cooking. Soon Syed established consistency in taste as a part of the game. The chefs could listen or they could choose to leave. The chefs showed more respect this time and listened.
Next, Syed Aamir wanted to specialize. “Some places are famous for certain types of food, I want people to come to my restaurant expecting their favorite dishes.” His wish was granted. A customer, a businessman by profession, traveling the world, stopped at his restaurant. He asked, “Syed why do you lie in the newspaper ads that your Chicken Kabab is the best in town?” Syed Aamir was taken aback, not knowing what to say. He thought of apologizing to the customer, when the customer beamed and said, “Your chicken Kababs are the best in the world, unparalleled. I have been to most cities in the world, eaten Kababs. No one comes close.” True, the chicken Kababs are moist and tender, mildly spicy, but simply delicious. Word has gotten around that Chatkhara Kababs are delicious. Kabab lovers from as far as NewYork, Chicago and other states order his kababs in bulk, freeze and use them as needed. Chatkhara Grill specializes in grilled fish, Lahori Chole (Chick peas) a vegetarian dish with option of adding chicken, Nehari (beef in gravy), Kadai Chicken / Goat with black pepper in a blend of tomato gravy, Goat and chicken biriyani.
Syed has also introduced signature drinks like Kanji – a seasonal, made with black carrots with their unique, sour taste, great for digestion and to cool down the body on a hot day. “It’s definitely an acquired taste, so I give my first time customers a small sample.” Chatkhara Grill is the only restaurant in Houston that serves Kashmiri Pink tea served with milk, sugar, cardamom. This tea takes 2-3 hours to prepare. It is garnished with almond and pistachio shavings. The Kashmiri tea is a winter drink, but in Houston, people love it in the summer too. Syed specially recommends trying the Lahori Kheer that is made from scratch with almonds, pistachios and cardamom flavoring. The fruit custard is an original recipe as well.
Recently his lease ended at the World Food Warehouse. He has moved to a new location. It is a great place, has a Pappas Seafood house or Joe’s Crabshack feel to it. Large wooden pillars and beams support the roof, with booth style and regular table seating, two bar style countertops, (they do not serve wine or liquor), and large windows all around. There is a large wooden patio that seats 50 people. Live music performances gather crowds on weekends. There is wi-fi on premises for those who want to browse the internet for leisure or work.
At the new location, Syed wants everyone to enjoy his food. “The young and the older generations have varying tastes.” He is planning on introducing burgers, club sandwiches, hot wings, chicken nuggets, breaded chicken tender strips, London’s famous fish and chips soon. All meats served here are halal. He plans to open Chaat & Juice bar, maybe throw in flavors of coffee as well for coffee lovers.
Visit www. chatkharagrill.com • For catering, call 713-240-1115 • Located 6202 Hwy 6 South (on the feeder, after Chase Bank), Houston, TX 77083