It's hard to imagine Apna Café without Azhar Baig. The proprietor of this Indo-Pak eatery in Longwood has struggled through illnesses, multiple car accidents, alcoholic sous-chefs and business-stifling road construction. He's even lost patrons who've confused his curry house with the similarly named Apna Restaurant on South OBT. But through it all, Baig has survived, and after a lengthy chat we had with him over dinner, we learned that survival is a trait with which Baig became intimately familiar as a young boy in the Khyber region of northern Pakistan. In between aggressively spiced potato bites of aloo tikki ($4.99) and onion pakoras ($3.99), we listened as this restaurateur regaled us with childhood tales of tribal feuds, gunrunners and threats against his life when he was but 11 years old.
As we sat with our jaws agape, occasionally remembering the perfectly crisp fritters that sat in our mouths, Baig continued the story: how his father got him out of the country to France, then to the United States. From a small town in Tennessee, where he was raised, Baig went on to receive degrees in medicine and the culinary arts – the former to please his father, the latter to please himself and ultimately, fans of Indian food. Having opened restaurants from Racine, Wis., to Redwood City, Calif., and many points in between, Baig opened Apna Café in late 2010.
Inside, the restaurant is simply decorated, and its many red-linen tables sit, for the most part, empty. Baig told us his dishes are made to order and admitted that patience is a virtue at his restaurant, but it didn't take very long for the mixed grill ($15.99) to arrive. Once our well-meaning server remembered to bring us utensils, we stuck our forks into the sizzling platter and rejoiced in beefy seekh kebabs, tandoori chicken and fiery shrimp; dry chicken tikka kebabs were the sole misfire. Curries are heavy on halal meat, and while the saucy numbers are characteristically spicy, don't underestimate Baig's ability to make milquetoast out of chicken Madras ($12.99), for those who don't like it hot. Impressively, neutralizing the piercing stab of chilies didn't come at the expense of the dish's rich coconut-ginger essence.
If you do like it hot, expect the infernal. The specialty, karahi gosht ($12.99) curry with chunks of bone-in goat, was sweat-inducingly sublime. Seeing my face moisten, Baig told us he toasts spices in-house and makes all his curries from scratch. "I learned from my mother. She would toast and crush the spices and I would deliver them to the cooks and just watch them," he says. That didn't seem to help the perspiration problem any, but then again, neither did the chili naan ($3.99).
Being short-staffed in the kitchen meant Baig couldn't offer us dessert, with the exception of complimentary halwa, a sugary cream of semolina that didn't mollify our craving for gulab jamun. Help in the kitchen is on its way, Baig assured us, and it was hard not to be sweet-talked into believing him. I can only imagine what things would be like if his restaurant ever got slammed – one man in the kitchen and a neophyte serving patrons aren't exactly a formula for success – but Baig appears to be taking a "slow and steady wins the race" approach. After all he's been through, I wouldn't bet against him.
1150 W. State Road 434, Longwood