There’s a line half a dozen deep on a Monday afternoon at Biriyani Kabob House, a strip mall Pakistani restaurant in the northeast pocket of Koreatown bordering Little Bangladesh. Customers help themselves to hefty $2 samosas from the hot case and neon orange mango lassis from the refrigerator. Above the cash register hangs a metal-framed corkboard covered in colorful, worn dollar bills from over 150 countries, and signs taped on both sides listing the day’s specials, like Karachi-style haleem and chicken 65 cooked in a spicy chile tomato sauce.
Trays come out of the kitchen stacked with heaping piles of brownish-yellow biryani flecked with soft chunks of meat and fresh herbs, curries wafting aromas of coriander and garam masala, and juicy kebabs served with sliced raw onion and warm naan just out of the tandoor oven. Several of the restaurant’s handful of tables are occupied by familiar faces. Enam Karim, who opened Biriyani Kabob House in 2014, says that 90 percent of his clientele are regulars. The diverse array of diners come from as far as Corona and San Diego to eat what he insists is “the best biryani in LA.”
Soon after the sun goes down, the restaurant, which is open every day from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. and has a capacity of 25, fills to its brim. Abu Daher, a longtime friend of Karim’s who owns a mechanic shop nearby and eats at Biriyani Kabob House several times a week, says that, more often than not, all of the 10 tables are occupied. During the day, sunlight shines through a panel of draped windows, while at night, purple and green string lights add color to the compact space.
Before opening Biriyani Kabob House, which expanded to a second location Downtown in early 2021, Karim worked as an aeronautical engineer for 30 years. He was born and raised in Karachi and then lived in Bangladesh and Germany before settling down in Los Angeles in 1981. When Karim was tired of working for someone else, his passion for food drove him into the restaurant business. He picked up a few cooking fundamentals from his late wife, who Karim says “was the number one chef that I ever met,” and the rest he taught himself from watching YouTube. He’d watch five to six different chefs — either Indians, Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis — make their own renditions of a given dish and then use those learnings to create his own version. Today, he’s most proud of his Hyderabadi lamb biryani, which is Biriyani Kabob House’s top-selling dish. Karim won’t divulge what makes his interpretation so fluffy and perfectly balanced, with its savory, aromatic notes and tender, fatty lamb.
Everything is made on the premises at Biriyani Kabob House, from the tubs of rice pudding for dessert to the vibrant green yogurt sauce blended with mint, cilantro, jalapeno, and lemon juice that’s served alongside all of the kebabs and biryani. Karim offers eight kinds of biryani including fish, tandoori chicken, and egg, and eight types of kebab (plus the popular mixed grill, a combination plate of chicken and beef kebabs). The menu also boasts 15 curries from korma to karahi; “chef specialties” like nalli nihari, a rich and slow-cooked beef stew; and upwards of 20 vegetarian (mostly vegan) dishes, such as aloo gobi and daal tarka. “This is for the business,” Karim says, since many of his customers eat plant-based food for religious, environmental, or health reasons. For the most part, however, Biriyani Kabob House relies heavily on meat, a nod to the abundance of livestock in Pakistan, where many dishes are meat-based.
Above the front door to the restaurant, the sign that bears the restaurant’s name also bills itself as serving “Bangladeshi / Indian & Pakistani Foods.” Although Karim is from Karachi and his food is primarily Pakistani, he advertises all three South Asian cuisines because there is a lot of crossover among them. Before all three countries were independent entities — India and Pakistan from British colonial rule in 1947, and Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 — they were all part of one Indian subcontinent governed by many maharajas up until the 16th century when the Mughal Empire, founded in modern-day Uzbekistan, invaded India. As Karim recounts, the Mughals brought their food, notably kebab and tandoor ovens, with them.
Once the Mughals had access to spices from the subcontinent, their kebabs became spicy, like those that Karim serves at Biriyani Kebab House today, which are either marinated as chunks or comprised of ground meat mixed with garam masala and additional spices like red chile, turmeric, cumin, coriander, and fresh herbs. As for biryani, the dish has a number of alleged origin stories, but according to Karim, it came about during the Anglo-Mughal War, when people had limited time to spend in the kitchen and thus were required to cook rice and meat together at the same time. “If you don’t know the history,” Karim says, “you won’t understand the food.”
This shared food history is why Biriyani Kabob House is a broadly South Asian restaurant, serving dishes that could be considered Indian, Bangladeshi, or Pakistani. The main differences between each country’s cuisine have to do with what’s abundant on their land, along with various cultural and religious factors. As for kebabs and biryani, Karim says they are executed similarly across all three cuisines. The only difference, he claims, is that Bangladeshi biryani, compared to that of India and Pakistan, is less spicy and also a bit sweeter, on account of ingredients like cinnamon and nutmeg.
Karim has big plans for Biriyani Kabob House. He’s looking at spaces to open third and fourth locations in Culver City and nearby UCLA by the end of this year, and eventually a fifth location in Northridge. “People deserve good food for a good price,” he says. Most importantly, he wants a bigger restaurant with full service, so he can make more dishes and reach new audiences in Los Angeles. “I want to get a Michelin star, inshallah,” he says. “If this were not in a hole in the wall but in a full-service restaurant, I probably would’ve done it already.”
Biriyani Kabob House is located at 3525 W. 3rd Streeet, Los Angeles, CA 90020 and open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.