Just as one goes to Centreville or Annandale for Korean food or Manassas for the best Mexican meals around, Herndon has become the place for a seemingly unending variety of South Asian eats. But most of those restaurants open no earlier than 11 a.m. What to do if you’re looking to start your day with Pakistani cuisine? This question is part of what spurred the family behind Chantilly’s Charcoal Chicken to create a new dining genre for our region: all-day South Asian breakfast in the form of Desi Breakfast Club, or DBC as Malik Waleed Ahmad calls it. He owns the restaurant with his father, chef Zaheer Ahmed, and his brother Fahad Qadeer.
Like Charcoal Chicken, the focus is on Pakistani fare made with freshly ground spices and high-quality ingredients. Unlike Charcoal Chicken, the heat is subdued to better suit the first meal of the day. But for those who aren’t early birds, it’s served from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday. “In my language, we say, ‘Eat at breakfast like a king, and have dinner like a poor man,'” says Ahmad. Plus, he reasons, “Everyone has a kebab shop.”
Those who have dined at Charcoal Chicken are well versed in the Ahmad family’s way with a spice blend. They know how to awaken a palate, even without heat. “You need spice in your life,” says Ahmad, noting that the level three at Wooboi Chicken is one of his favorite dishes in Herndon. “Especially in the morning, I like to focus on the ingredients and the quality rather than how spicy it is.”
I tried most of the menu, and the results were almost universally positive, all the way down to the caffeine-laden, cardamom-scented Pakistani chai. The only clunker, an omelet-stuffed crepe that was missing the spices that would have brought it from purely American to a Pakistani fusion dish, will likely be changed soon to make it a more interesting bite, says Ahmad. What will have me returning? The breads, for one.
The lachha paratha is roughly the size of a medium pizza and just as filling, but possibly more fun to eat. The flaky flatbread crackles and shatters with each chewy pull. Think of it as a giant South Asian croissant, born to go with the stews on offer.
So is the puri. DBC’s most popular dish, halwah puri (pictured at top) features two of the puffy, fried breads. All the better to dip in the savory chickpea and potato stews that accompany it. But the dish gets its name from the halwah, a pudding of toasted semolina that’s auspiciously buttery and topped with shaved almonds. The version at DBC is forgivingly savory, more like a slightly sweet bowl of Mom’s homemade oatmeal than the often intensely sugary dessert halwas I’ve tasted.
Ahmad says that a significant difference between Pakistani and American breakfasts is the reliance on meat in the U.S. However, he realizes the importance of serving a few dishes that go beyond bread and veggies at his restaurant. Those include the rich haleem above. Imagine a South Asian take on chicken a la king topped with matchsticks of ginger and featuring finely shredded meat and you’ve got the idea. You might get full, but you will not stop eating it.
Nehari is similarly pleasurable for starting the day or as a lunch or dinnertime booster. The oily beef stew uses lavishly collagenous shank meat to build the flavor of the stew, but the meat itself is almost beside the point. The real goal is to provide a delicious sauce in which to dip one of the breads. In this case, I used sandy-textured roomali roti to scoop up the well-spiced but not far-from-fiery broth.
Another strong point on the menu is chaat, or South Asian snacks. The bahi bhalla, which I previously knew by its South Indian name dahi vada, are soft lentil fritters in a yogurt sauce. At DBC, they’re bathed in silky yogurt, then topped with chopped tomato and onion. A tamarind chutney lends sweet-and-sour appeal to each bite, and cilantro brightens the fresh flavors further.
After talking to Ahmad, I learned that there will soon be more to love at DBC. He plans to take over the space next door, which will expand the restaurant from roughly 40 seats to a potential 200 in an adjacent banquet room. That will likely open in two months, he says. With that, not only will it be easier to score a table at the restaurant (they currently require reservations on weekends), but there will be opportunity to grow the menu. “I want to make my place different–a fusion from all the cuisines and make what I want to eat,” says Ahmad. Future dishes will include a highly untraditional jalapeno-cheese-stuffed paratha. He hopes that his family’s hand with spices and way of choosing high-quality ingredients will compel diners with more staid palates to try his creations.
The only reason that DBC didn’t quite capture a three-star rating of “great” is service that can at times be less than organized. It was excellent when I visited on a quiet day, but on a busy one, a server told me to sit down at a dirty booth where someone else’s spilled food was still sitting where I should have been. That same server also forgot one of the three dishes I ordered, but quickly had the kitchen fire it up. These are growing pains, and if it weren’t my job to point them out, I wouldn’t be too perturbed by them.
Instead, I would focus on the many positives, including the fact that there is nowhere else in the state doing exactly what Ahmad and his family are. “My goal is breakfast, all day, every day,” he says. There are no plans for expansion of the concept because of its reliance on highly trained kitchen staff like his family. All the more reason to head to Herndon when you’re in the mood for a carb-filled feast. 3065 Centreville Rd., Unit G, Herndon
See this: A giant mural covers one wall with pictures of coffee and cake, priming the palate for breakfast.
Eat this: Lachha paratha, nehari, halwah puri
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior
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