BK Jani: the best halal joint in NYC
Living abroad if any Pakistani is doing extraordinarily well, regardless of their field, they attract the attention of others also settled abroad who relate to and identify with Pakistan. All the usual questions are asked. Who? What? Where? Why? How? I’ll share my recent experience of visiting a small Pakistani (Lahori) barbecue spot in New York called ‘BK Jani’ that serves arguably the best halal barbecue food I have ever had.
The experience matches the city. I’m not alone in feeling this way; I’m sure many people think that there is no other place that can match New York’s cultural diversity, its vibrant mix of world-class conveniences, and its fast pace. It is also undoubtedly one of the culinary capitals of the world. Superlatives abound in the New York context. In that spirit I would like to say that the best barbecue, burgers, and lamb chops can be found at BK Jani (‘BK’ stands for Brooklyn). It opened in October 2015 in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. After my recent visit I have decided that whenever I go to NYC, a visit to BK Jani will be on my to-do list.
When I arrived at BK Jani, I was less than thrilled because it is a small place with limited seating and our party had to wait. During the wait, I noticed the relatively simple ambience with the hand-painted walls that were inspired by Pakistani-themed art. One corner displayed the short main menu, while another area had short handwritten customer notes commending the food and the experience.
Eventually we found seats after a long wait. I was surprised that there were no servers and we had to place the order with the owner (Mr. Sibte Hassan) himself. Mr. Hassan, who identifies himself as the “chief grilling officer”, is a native of Lahore and is personally involved in the kitchen.
Interestingly there were no utensils (forks, knives and spoons) and the food is eaten by hand off paper plates. I was not bothered in the least because the delicious mouth-
watering food was out of this world and more than compensated for the lack of frills.
The food choices offered were limited to lamb chops, ‘boti kababs’, ‘seekh kababs’, ‘chicken tikkas’ and burgers. I learned that Mr. Hassan buys his meat – Black Angus beef, New Zealand lamb and Amish chicken, all pasture-raised, hormone-free and certified halal – from a very high quality supplier, Pat LaFrieda. He himself seasons, slices, and shapes everything to order. My favorites were the burger and lamb chops that had irresistible taste due to the unique combination of spices and herbs with mint chutney, something even I, as a self-proclaimed foodie, had never experienced before.
The burger was topped with grilled red tomatoes and home-made coriander chutney, but without any ketchup and mustard. The meat – a mixture of prime ground beef and brisket patties – was the star of this classic favorite. Mr. Hassan cooked the burger in medium heat with a true pink center flowing with juices. The charred crust enhanced the taste of the perfectly seasoned patty. The fresh herbs chutney adorned the evenly grilled red tomato stacked on a freshly baked brioche bun. The side of rich and crunchy thin cut truffle fries accompanying the burger was delectable.
The lamb chops that look like a lollipop were great to eat as well. Mr. Hassan seemed reluctant to share his recipe. The only thing he shared was that he immerses both side of the chops in a unique paste (spices and herbs), and lets them marinate for a few hours in the refrigerator. After removing them from the refrigerator, he waits for about half an hour to allow the chops to come back to room temperature. He then heats the grill pan over high heat until almost smoking, adds the chops, and sears them for a few minutes. The perfectly seasoned chops are served with green mint, coriander and chilly ‘chutney’ as well as a delicious yogurt ‘raita’.
Mr. Hassan has an easygoing manner and comes across as friendly, articulate, and motivated. He seems to understand the challenges in the business. When I suggested introducing ‘biryani’ in the menu, he mentioned that he was working on opening a second outlet that would serve ‘biryani’ but he was still working on perfecting the recipe.
Mr. Hassan was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, and came to the US to study at the Parsons School of Design. He has been a graphic designer, animator, photographer, and filmmaker, but never before a professional chef, just a ‘backyard’ one who liked to feed his friends. (“Over-feed them,” he says.) I can see how his curiosity and passion for cooking are driving his success.
The BK Jani experience is authentic. People from all over are savoring it. It can be a culture carrier for Pakistan. I recall when Barack Obama was first elected he told a Pakistani newspaper in an interview that his familiarity with Pakistan culture extended to the country’s poets and food (‘daal’ and ‘qeema’). In the same case, by being exposed to Pakistani cuisine, people may want to reflect and learn more about the culture in a way that gives them insight into how and why things work as they do and possibly a way to change them for the better. It can be an instrument to bring people from different backgrounds together, to hear and understand one another. There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Hassan’s efforts to serve the best halal food at BK Jani can help to bring people together and tell our story.
Shaziah Zuberi is a fashion designer based in Washington DC. @ShaziahZ.