New York is full of good food; from the halal food carts that offer tasty convenience to swanky little rooftop gardens that serve up structure and complexity to match the view. New restaurants appear sporadically, and if I may be so bold to suggest – even unnecessarily – much like nieces and nephews in Pakistani households, and well-established ones disappear like loyal help fired on sahib jee’s whim. What distinguishes a successful establishment in the city from one that won’t live to see the first-year anniversary is its capacity to channel lived human experiences through a culinary one. Sibte Hassan – hailed as the ‘Midas of meat’ by the New York Times – has it down to a science. With BK Jani, his debut food venture, he has firmly entrenched himself in the thriving Brooklyn food scene with a limited but excellently curated and executed menu. It is not a fancy steakhouse or an artisanal café but a fast food joint in Bushwick with burgers and wraps spiced and cooked to Pakistani sensibilities.
A neon sign hangs over the main service counter in the hole-in-the-wall restaurant; “always spicy, always fresh” it claims with a flash of lights through the smoke that wafts in from the grill. The dining area itself is small and furnished with a handful of painted tables – that I discover are built by Sibte Hassan himself. The walls are covered in vibrant art by local artists. Fairy lights – much like the ones found in almost every college dorm room in America – give the space a whimsical, nostalgic warmth. The décor is fitting. The visible signs of South-Asian ownership necessary. The crowd eclectic. Interracial couples are dotted around the room. The spectrum of sexualities and genders a refreshing and significant sight in what would typically be a cis-gendered, heteronormative desi haven. I spot groups of young NYU students waiting for families to leave so they can claim a table. A few corporate types in stiff cotton pants and loose ties look obviously perplexed by the space they have found themselves in. I assume they have wandered in based on the rave NYT review.
I have also read the review as well as heard my sister talk about their burgers for well over a month. I have decided to dine there just so I can tell her it is not all that. After all, a place with only a handful of items on the menu (that too served on paper plates) could hardly be worthy of such praise. And what kind of a name is BK Jani anyway? Literally translated to ‘Brooklyn Darling’, I cringe and wonder why the owner would pick a name that fits into all the Punjabi tropes I can imagine. Loud, brash, tasteless brown people. By the end of my meal however, I see that maybe the name is loud and brash but its use and effect is anything but. If one wants to reclaim their identity and restore it to its original significance, one must embrace it first – without the gaze of the colonizer and the pressures of assimilation in a foreign land. To sing a love song to ones’ food and call it your beloved is perhaps the ultimate homage Sibte Hassan could have paid to his Lahori roots and a fitting nod to New York for holding space for this passionate love affair.
I order a burger, an OG paratha roll and masala fries. All of this comes with little dipping pots full of hari (green) chutney and tomato sauce. My pinky makes a foray into them and my tongue is forced to work hard, to not be lazy in processing the subtle, robust beauty of each. Upon inquiry, I am told that both the condiments are made in-house. They have just the right amount of texture to tell me two things: that the delicious green and red goop really had been sad little vegetables once with skin and stalks and all those nasty things you pick out from your food at home but that they had reincarnated as gorgeous desi divas that you would risk ama’s wrath to take home.
NFAK’s glorious ‘Dum Mast Mast’ begins to play in my head as I collect my food and sit staring at it. It is just a burger and a paratha roll and some fries. But they smell like Pakistani food. Not like the fake-ass, saccharine butter chicken in one of those god-awful places on Curry Lane or the raw onion and reheated oil in the karahis in Jackson Heights. I can really, truly, actually smell the roasted ground cumin making love to the ground beef and I can see the bumpty bump sesame seeds chilling on top of a slick bun next to what seems like a flaky paratha piled with chicken and raita with pieces of tomato and cucumber fighting to assert their presence. I take huge gulps of air but still feel breathless. To onlookers I might look a lot like Saima after she has frolicked around a tree in a Syed Noor film. (Yes, I watch Lollywood movies. Yes, my food review is still worth reading.)
I deliberate long and hard over which entrée to taste first. I go with the burger. I will have no recollection of what the first bite is like. Or the second. Not because it is unremarkable but because it is not till I have inhaled the whole thing that I pause to think. The flavours seem to have triggered a carnal single-mindedness that I have only exhibited at boring shaadis (in the good old days of non-one-dish receptions) in the past. The ground beef patty is cooked to perfection – a medium rare that has been given time to rest and relax. There is charring on it from the grill and the singular succulence of quality meat. Visibly the burger is not very large. But it is a reasonable thickness to provide a good bite and the all-important bun-to-meat ratio. It is juicy and the possibly overpowering heat from the garam masala is offset by the freshness of the mint chutney that is slathered on the meat. There is no cheese but a coating of raita (mint chutney in a yogurt base) on the inside of the top bun and only a slice of tomato in this no-frills beauty. I heap extra chutney to prove my desi street creds and have a nasal drip by the time I move on to the roll.
The chicken roll is not a throwback to Karachi BBQ as I had expected and boy am I glad it isn’t. When I gingerly bite into a piece of chicken, waiting in trepidation to be disappointed after what feels like a life-changing experience, the raita ensures that the grilled chicken is not dry but tender and flavorful. I want to love it but I know I have wronged myself and the roll by forcing it to compete with one of the best things I have eaten in a while. I decide to take it home. Give it the attention and respect it deserves when I am not dazed by the preceding gastronomic experience.
After I have eaten, I blissfully slump against the wall and crane my neck to see how everyone else is enjoying their food. I see someone wipe their eyes. God bless their soul because they pick their burger right back up and try to squeeze it into the chutney container before digging in again. There are smiles and grins and a post-coital glow to most faces around me. I watch as the staff zips in and out – clearing tables to make space for waiting customers. I begin to see why it’s a very efficient move to not use real crockery. It makes the restaurant operation that much tighter and reduces the number of people crammed into the place. I finally notice how they don’t have any plastic cutlery at the restaurant. You must eat with your hands – right hand please, for the uninitiated. On that point, it is also important to note that the restaurant is fully halal. They serve only zabiha meat (i.e. according to Islamic butchering and meat preparation standards) and for someone like me, starved for halal meat in a white, bourgey suburb of LA, it is a magical place.
Months later, I return to BK Jani with my mother. I post a picture from our meal on Instagram and a friend I don’t speak to very often comments within five minutes of me putting it up. Rida says she is “obsessed” with the place and proceeds to succinctly capture its beauty in the following words: “It bares desi food to its essence and then elevates it to another level. So good. And if you’re taking your mom there, you know it’s special.”
A few minutes later, another friend, chimes in. I respond quickly – making many typos that I later return to and correct – reveling in the knowledge that two other people with vastly different experiences in this city have also felt the warmth and exhilaration that I experienced there. It is an ode to the power of food in bringing people together and to the importance of spaces like BK Jani for South-Asians in the United States during threatening, tumultuous times. Comfort food uncomfortably positioned in this globalized world. A place so secure in its complex identity – born out of alienation and antagonism – that it embraces the precariousness of its appeal and makes every person walking in through the doors feel welcome and understood.
The culinary significance of Sibte Hassan’s food lies in how well he encapsulates his personal struggles of creating a home in New York; a sprawling city that tempts many with the promise of its expansive, generous spirit but leaves one acutely alone wandering through concrete grids and lush parks. Only a place that can make such a promise can have that power; a city milling with life and other lonely people. BK Jani makes a similar, lofty promise. It lures in desi customers like me with the promise of reflecting the nuance of my experience in a foreign land and for the non-desi, it offers sincere and authentic access to a culture, a history, a memory. It delivers on both with an ethnic palate and an inclusive space and that is no easy feat.