When Zam Zam Market closed in Culver City in late 2014 after a nearly ten year run, it was a huge blow to the local Pakistani/Indian food scene. For some reason, Los Angeles doesn't really have much in the way of truly standout so-called South Asian cuisine, and the removal of one of its lynchpins seemed to set everyone back. Nestled in a dingy slot a few doors away from a beautiful, towering mosque in western Culver City, Zam Zam offered the most delicious biryani this side of the Pacific Ocean, plus blackened chicken tikka and fragrant lamb pulao.
After a year-long closure, Zam Zam Market is back, all the way down in a sleepy stretch of Hawthorne, a mere twenty minute drive south from West LA barring any traffic. When it was closer to me, in Culver City, I dropped by every other week, craving its tender chicken biryani and garlic naan, probably my favorite in town. After letting the Hawthorne outlet settle in for a few months, I made the trek last week to see if anything had changed. Opened since December 11 of last year, owners Fozia and Fahim Siddiqui have already garnered a heavy dose of regulars pining for a sytrofoam cup of milk-laden black tea and a taste of home.
[Fozia Siddiqui at Zam Zam's Kitchen]
The environs are markedly nicer than the Culver City shop, which was definitely a bit run down and disorganized. Zam Zam's Hawthorne spot is equally jarring with its bright fluorescent lights and sparsely lined grocery shelves. And that's what I love about it: there's no concession of any kind to anyone who'd expect a fancy environment to eat in. When you're at Zam Zam, you're almost immediately transported to a bustling corner in Karachi, the country's largest city and hometown of the Siddiquis. The main difference between Pakistani and Indian cuisine seems to be that the former features much more in the way of meat in its dishes.
Ordering can be a bit tricky here — just step up to Fozia, who commands the semi-open kitchen (you have to walk through it to use the washroom), and ask what's available for lunch or dinner. The usual items might be a platter of chicken biryani, though she's offered goat in the past. The lamb pulao (a kind of pilaf), only available Fridays to accommodate local mosque goers, carries a strong chili pepper flavor and a denser rice than the biryani.
The grilled plates would definitely inhibit any intimate conversation you might want to have afterwards
Bone-in chicken tikka that's blasted in the tandoori oven, or skewered beef kabobs, imbued with heavy seasoning, make for a fine meaty counterpoint to the rice plates. Loaded with raw onions and a sprinkle of parsley, the grilled plates would definitely inhibit any intimate conversation you might want to have afterwards. And everything benefits from a spoonful of the faint green yogurt "chutney" sauce, which adds a rich, herbacious, and even spicy sheen to every bite.
The naan, which also comes out of the searing hot tandoori oven, evinces the same blister as a finely charred Neapolitan pizza, with heavy garlic and parsley as its sole toppings. On the evening I visited, Fozia whipped up chicken karahi, a tomato-y stew with cumin, crushed, chili, turmeric, ginger, and garlic. The stew makes a perfect dipping destination for that naan.
But Zam Zam's raison d'etre is the biryani, which seems a tad less intense here in Hawthorne, but remains redolent of spices and tender bone-in chicken. I've had this biryani over a dozen times, and each time I experience it, I almost feel transported to the Asian subcontinent, perched on a stump and diving face first into flavor. I've had renditions of their biryani that stuck in hacked pieces of chicken (bone flak was inevitable), crushed whole green cardamom (watch your teeth), and spiky cloves ready to jab into your gums. And through all the trials of taking down a styrofoam plate of biryani, I always ended up eating more than my body allowed.
On this last trip to Zam Zam, I tried to restrain myself, opting to feel less like a horse that had too many oats. But one of my dining companions gladly polished off the remainder of the biryani, fueled with spoonfuls of that addictive yogurt sauce. I felt regretful for a minute, but then remembered that Zam Zam is back, and only a short drive away.
Zam Zam Market is open Tuesday to Sunday, 11:30 to 9 p.m., though it's advisable to call ahead and make sure they're open.
13649 Inglewood Ave, Hawthorne, CA 90250