By Vickie Lewis
Visiting new restaurants and trying different types of cuisine is almost always an enjoyable experience for me. But I consider it a bonus when I also get the opportunity to learn a little about the history and culture of the country from which the food originates. Such was my experience when my guest and I visited Zaiqa Indian and Pakistani Restaurant, one of the newest dining establishments in Hercules. Zaiqa’s owners, Chris Nazir and Ron Vincent, graciously spent time sharing information with us about India and Pakistan, the language, cuisine and culture. When our visit ended, I felt infinitely more educated than when we arrived.
Zaiqa opened on June 15, 2016 in the location formerly occupied by Biryani House restaurant. Owners Ron and Chris also own Mehran Indian and Pakistani Restaurant in Pittsburg where they have successfully operated for the past eleven years. Their newest venture is modeled similarly to Mehran, boasting the same menu items and recipes, catering services, excellent customer service and overall commitment to quality.
Ron and Chris were both born and raised In Pakistan and came to the United States in 1990 and 1998 respectively. They became acquainted through familial ties (their wives are cousins!) and have known each other for just under twenty years. Both men previously worked in very important and interesting jobs in diverse professions within “corporate America”. When they decided to pursue opening their own business, they were fortunate to have the support and direction of a close family friend who has owned and operated Mehran Indian and Pakistani Restaurant and Catering in Fremont for the past forty years. Although neither had previous restaurant or culinary experience, their business acumen combined with the training, guidance, and backing from their mentor led to the opening of their Mehran franchise in Pittsburg. And the success of that business over the last decade has now led to the opening of Zaiqa.
The word “Zaiqa” means “taste” in Urdu, the Pakistani language. And I can assure you that every item that my guest and I were fortunate to sample during our visit was extremely tasty and flavorful! One of the first questions I asked was about the pairing of Indian and Pakistani food. Being geographically challenged about areas outside the Americas, I wondered if the India and Pakistan were neighboring countries. Ron and Chris explained that the two countries were previously one country known as Hindustan, until India gained independence from the English in 1947. Thereafter, the two countries split into India and Pakistan. The cuisines of the two countries are extremely similar, with one major difference being that Indian dishes do not include beef primarily due to religious reasons.
Zaiqa’s menu boasts a varied assortment of appetizers and entrees in the following groupings: Tandoori, Exquisite Curries, Lamb/Goat Curries, Vegetarian, Paneer, Seafood Delicacies, Rice Dishes, and Clay Oven Bread/Roti. One of the most popular attractions at Zaiqa is their All You Can Eat Daily Lunch Buffet, which features rotating selections from the menu. Each day, the buffet features ten items—four meat or seafood dishes, four vegetarian dishes, and two rice selections. In addition, there are always two appetizer selections (1 meat and 1 veggie selection), two desserts, unlimited tea, and unlimited fresh plain Naan delivered to the diners’ tables once they’ve chosen their items from the buffet table. The lunch buffet is available beginning at 11:00 AM daily, and continues until 3:00 PM on weekdays and until 4:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays. All of this is available at the nominal cost of only $10.99. We’re told that the restaurant is very busy during daily lunch hours as diners avail themselves to this excellent offer! Zaiqa also offers take-out and delivery options, and online orderings is also available.
Fortunately, when it was time to eat, our hosts ordered a delightful array of items from the menu for us to try, saving us the quandary of having to decide what to choose from the long list of options available As we continued our discussion with the owners, Zaiqa manager, Richard, and assistant manager, Siana, graciously brought a seemingly steady stream of food to our table. We started with a hot, flavorful cup of Chai tea, which is made with cardamom seeds and steamed milk, and had a sweetish, creamy flavor. Next, we were served an appetizer sampler which included small portions of Fish Pakora, Vegetable Pakora, and a Vegetable Samosa. “Pakora” refers to something being fried, and we learned that the “coating” on the Pakora is made of chickpea powder. The appetizers were served with house-made mint and tamarind sauces. The mint sauce is made with mint, cilantro and green chiles, and so had a bit of spiciness to it. The tamarind was also very good, and was even better when mixed with the mint sauce for dipping. The Fish Pakora was a moist, white fish fried crisply in vegetable oil. The Vegetable Pakora was a medley of small pieces of fried spinach, onions, cauliflower and potatoes. The Samosa was a triangular fried pastry, generously stuffed with peas and potato filing. All three of these appetizers were enjoyable, both with and without the dipping sauces.
Our next samples were lamb and chicken kababs, served off the skewers on a sizzling platter garnished with onion, cilantro and lime wedges. Four generous pieces of chicken breast meat cooked to perfection awaited us, as well as three tubular shaped lamb kabobs. While neither my guest nor I typically eat lamb, I had never had the opportunity to try it prepared this way. Not surprisingly, both meats were quite delectable! The chicken was spiced to perfection, giving it an orange outer color, and was very moist and tender. The lamb kebabs reminded me a bit of meat loaf, as the meat was mixed with onions, cilantro, mint, and green chiles. Again, they were moist and tender and I liked it so much, I even had seconds! The meat did not taste like lamb I had eaten before; I wouldn’t have even known it was lamb if I hadn’t been told that it was.
Although we were already getting full, our host and hostess brought out the three main entrees for our tasting. These included Zaiqa’s best-selling dish, Chicken Tikka Masala; Vegetable Biryani, and Karahi Chicken. Zaiqa’s goat entrees are rank among their best sellers, so we were even served a small sample of Goat Korma, which is goat cooked in chef’s special sauce. The highlight of the evening was the basket of warm, freshly baked Naan—a mixture of plain and garlic flavored. Together, these items were a veritable feast and everything was presented beautifully and tasted marvelous—even the goat! In spite of being somewhat reluctant, my guest and I both tried the goat and found it to be quite delicious. It was tender, and seemed to have a light, “young” flavor. We learned that the Masala sauce served with the chicken is a special tomato based sauce that can be universally served with any type of meat, fish, or vegetables. We also learned that Biryani refers to anything cooked and mixed with rice, and Ron and Chris explained the Biryani preparation process to us. It is quite humbling to hear about the great efforts that go into the preparation of the Indian and Pakistani food, and to learn of all of the spices and natural ingredients that are combined to create the wonderful flavors we enjoyed. An excellent house-made yogurt sauce/dip made with cucumbers, called Raita, was served to accompany the Biyrani. My favorite of the entrees was the Karahi Chicken, cooked with tomatoes, green chili and spices, while my guest’s favorite was the Chicken Tikka Masala. Everything had such a good flavor, and the spiciness of the food, while not “hot” to the taste, certainly opened up my sinuses!
Chris and Ron are fortunate to have wonderful chefs working for them at both of their restaurants and for their catering jobs. Our chef for the evening, Baldev Singh, is a pure vegetarian for religious reasons, and so cannot eat or even taste any of the meat or chicken dishes he prepares. In spite of this, his ability to prepare the dishes with just the right amount of spices and flavorings is seemingly flawless!
Zaiqa appears to be a small restaurant from the outside; but what isn’t apparent is that the owners also have an entire banquet room next door that is for their use. This banquet room holds up to 150 guests and is available for most any kind of events. If desired, Zaiqa will provide the catering for events held in their banquet room; alternatively, the room can be rented, and patrons can bring in their own food and beverages. Zaiqa has a number of different catering menus available in addition to offering Indian-Pakistani food choices. For example, they have an Afghani menu (food is prepared by an Afghani chef); and an international menu, which also includes American options such as Roasted Chicken and Tri-Tip; and they even have full breakfast and continental breakfast catering options. All banquet costs are charged on a per-person basis and are calculated based on the cuisine and services rendered. Zaiqa is a “one-stop” catering shop, and can provide, coordinate, or assist with almost any arrangements or services required for a successful event. They can provide table linens, assist with decorating, and will provide all serving staff, including a bartender if required. The banquet room also comes equipped with a projector and screen available for use for any event. They can provide event lighting, and even have an in-house DJ available who plays a versatile repertoire of music. For those who are looking for specialized services such as make-up artists, photographers, videographers, or limousine service, Chris and Ron can also provide referrals to resources they’ve used previously who are dependable and reliable. Informationally, a larger banquet room is available in Pittsburg, which is affiliated with their Mehran restaurant, and has a capacity of 300 guests. The same food and service options are available at both locations.
But wait—there’s more! Zaiqa not only provides catering in their own banquet room, but their staff is also available to provide catering services at other locations and venues. For example, if you’d like to hold your event in a park, at a local community hall, or even in your own backyard, Zaiqa will bring their portable clay ovens and do all the cooking on-site for your event, and can still assist with all the same coordination and arrangements mentioned above. For outdoor activities, they can even provide tents, if desired. So, the next time you’re planning an event, add Zaiqa to your list of caters to check out. They have years of experience with all types of events—weddings, Quincineras, graduation parties, memorial services, and even business meetings or conferences. Their experienced staff will ensure that all details are expertly handled. If you’re interested, contact Chris Nazir or Ron Vincent for further details and banquet menus.
To end our visit, my guest and I were treated to a Mango Lassi, a traditional drink which is essentially a yogurt-based milkshake/smoothie; and a bowl of Kheer, a traditional rice pudding dessert, topped with crushed pistachio nuts. Both were the perfect end to our meal. In summary, if you’re looking for a good new local venue, be sure to stop by Zaiqa for lunch or dinner any day of the week to try out their excellent cuisine. The restaurant is intimate, but clean, pleasant, and nicely decorated with good lighting. Plenty of parking is available in the strip mall where they are located. And if you happen to go during the busy lunch hours, don’t worry—the banquet room can accommodate overflow seating! Zaiqa was recently nominated for the KQED show “Check, Please!”, where Bay Area guests explore local café culture. Be sure to watch for them in an upcoming episode. In the meantime, take time to visit and check Zaiqa out for yourself!
848 Willow Avenue, Hercules | (510) 313-0697 | zaiqahercules.com