Every restaurant had to make major changes in 2020 (thanks a lot, pandemic). On the southwest side, Awan’s Desi Cuisine’s biggest change was moving from Oklahoma Avenue to South 76th Street, into a much bigger space that allows for distanced dining.
Owner Khurum Awan’s new space is three times the size of the old one; with tables 7 to 10 feet apart, it seats no more than 40, instead of the 100 it has room for. His wife, Hina, is the chef; she grew up in a restaurant family in Pakistan. The couple is from Punjab’s capital city of Lehore.
Still, most diners are taking their food to go these days, and Awan’s takeout game is strong. The menu of Pakistani and Indian dishes stands up to travel, and everything that could spell disaster if it were to tip over in the car is well packaged in microwaveable containers.
And the food I tried was tasty, wholesome and warming.
Awan’s Desi Cuisine in October took over the space that previously was Shah Jee’s, another restaurant serving Pakistani cuisine. The format remains counter service; phone ahead or order online for quicker carryout, and pick up at the counter in the back. (Desi, pronounced day-see, means South Asian.)
If you’re calling in, you could find the menu in the photos of the restaurant’s Facebook page, or on the DoorDash site. But what you won’t see on those menus is one of my favorite dishes at Awan’s, the seekh kebab ($10.99).
It was an especially tender and moist rendition of the skewered and grilled ground beef, served with rings of raw white onion, warm naan and a particularly flavorful cilantro-mint chutney by Hina Awan, as good for its texture as for its flavor. The restaurant plans to begin offering kebabs with ground chicken, as well.
Another terrific grilled meat was malai tikka boti ($9.99), chunks of chicken marinated in seasoned yogurt before grilling to ensure that it’s tender and juicy. It, too, came with onion and naan. All the meat, Khurum Awan said, is zabiha halal.
On one cold night, the chicken haleem ($10.99) made a comforting dinner. It was the first time I could recall seeing the wheat porridge on a Milwaukee menu with finely chopped chicken instead of beef — lighter but still savory.
When nights call for meatless meals, the menu at Awan’s obliges with curries. Chana dal ($7.99), the split yellow lentils, was forthrightly spicy, like much of the menu. Curries like that one and spinach with cheese ($9.99) are garnished with fresh ginger, cilantro and chile.
To help tame the heat, order the aroma rice (scented with cumin seed, cinnamon bark and other whole spices, $3.99) and some bread (naan or garlic naan, $1; usually paratha or potato-stuffed paratha is also available, $1.99).
Should you need just some snacks, or a little something to start your meal, Awan’s has appetizers such as samosas, the pastries filled with chicken or beef or vegetables ($3 or $4) and pakora, the fritters made with chickpea flour and vegetables or chicken or fish ($4.99 or $6.99).
If we’ve learned anything during this pandemic, it’s that fried foods don’t take to travel as well. So eat them in the car on the spot or crisp them up in the oven at home for best results. It’s worth ordering the shami tikki ($4 for two pieces), patties of finely shredded chicken and lentil bound with egg — it’s the first time I’ve seen those on a Milwaukee menu.
I plan to head back to Awan’s while winter is raging to try the two Pakistani soups, one hot and sour, one chicken and corn. Come spring, the Awans hope to begin serving Pakistani breakfast on the weekends, from 10 a.m. to noon — dishes including chana masala and aloo curry, and the round, fried wheat bread poori.
3933 S. 76th St. (414) 616-1645. facebook.com/desicuisinemke. Earlier versions of this story gave an incorrect address.
Hours: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday. To order ahead: Online through DoorDash, or phone in orders for carryout; order at the counter if dining in. Delivery is through DoorDash. Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Carol Deptolla has been reviewing restaurants in Milwaukee and Wisconsin since 2008. Like all Journal Sentinel reporters, she buys all meals, accepts no gifts and is independent of all establishments she covers, working only for our readers.
Contact her at [email protected] or (414) 224-2841, or through the Journal Sentinel Food & Home page on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter at @mkediner or Instagram at @mke_diner.
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