Usually, if I walk into a restaurant during peak lunchtime and find it mostly empty, alarm bells start going off in my head. True, the bells help drown out the voices, but generally it’s a negative thing.
But for some reason when I walked into Tawa Modern Indo-Pak Cuisine in the Dr. Phillips/Restaurant Row district just after noon and found only one other table occupied, I didn’t turn and run.
Maybe it was the pleasant interior, cool and quiet, or the warm smile and welcome from the young woman who bade me to sit wherever I wanted. Or maybe it was that I had limited time and no other options and just wanted to have lunch. The voices in my head told me to stay.
And they were right for a change. The food was delicious and plentiful – even the item ordered from the lunch-specials menu.
That was the nihari, a classic Pakistani stew that can be made with various meats though it’s traditional to use beef shank, as Tawa does. The meat is stewed, with the bones, overnight and seasoned with ginger, garlic and long peppers. The gravy had a bit of an oil slick on top with some sliced green chilies floating in it. That should be your first clue that this is a hot dish – my scalp and eyes were watering after a few bites. But it wasn’t just spicy for spicy’s sake; the seasoning were layered and complex. And extra points for not asking me if I wanted it mild, medium or hot – this is a fiery dish and if you want something mild order something else.
(Nihari, by the way, means morning and this dish was originally something consumed at breakfast. I’m thinking it made a better cold-morning meal that cream of wheat.)
The dish was served with both rice and naan, the latter doughier than most but quite tasty. The lunch version also included a potato and pea-stuffed samosa, served with mint and tamariind chutneys, and gulab jaman for dessert.
I also ordered a starter of Bombay bhel, a street-stall chaat that also conjured images of breakfast because puffed rice is a main ingredient. Served cold, this savory snack also had chopped onions, tomatoes, fresh mint and sev, a crunchy noodle made with chickpea flour. With the airiness of the puffed rice, the bhel was a not-too-filling starter. A crispy rice treat.
Tawa’s decor is spartan but stylish, with dark glassy tabletops, a wall of modish gray wall paper with a hexagonal pattern and the restaurant’s name in soft lights at the far end of the room.
Halfway through my meal the people at the other table had already left, leaving me the lone diner. We loved having the place to myself.
Tawa Modern Indo-Pak Cuisine is at 7536 Dr. Phillips Blvd., Orlando (map). It is open for lunch and dinner Thursday through Tuesday. The phone number is 407-730-5180. Note: little on the restaurant's website works other than the menu page.