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May 17, 2005 > Mirchi Caf&è & Masala Pizza

Mirchi Caf&è & Masala Pizza

The best of two worlds

Any time there is a collision of cultures, results can be problematic. In the culinary world, chefs are constantly blending regional recipes in hopes of creating a synergistic masterpiece. They know that while some traditional dishes have reached a pinnacle of perfection, skilled hands can "fuse" the best each has to offer leading to gastronomic nirvana. A small cafè in Irvington has achieved a delicate balance between traditional Italian and Pakistani cuisine while offering a variety of dishes that transcend each region.

Chef Lisa Ahmad has learned to move effortlessly between these two regional cooking styles. In her early years, hours were spent at Lucia's, her family's Italian restaurant. Grandfather Dick Lucia and Grandmother Lucia Lucia (no name change necessary when they met and fell in love!) brought the hearty flavors of Italy to Fremont and Lisa learned to love the taste and smells of Italian cooking, to appreciate the subtle differences of masterful cooking and honor the importance of fresh, top quality ingredients.

Lisa met Khursheed "Mush" Ahmad who worked at Lucia's and love struck. His Pakistani background opened a different culinary door for Lisa and she was soon learning about Pakistani cooking. Mush and Lisa wanted to take advantage of both cooking styles - "We took the best of both tastes," says Lisa. She contends that "country cooking" around the world is similar, but the use of spices and seasonings is different. Her goal is to understand and respect the roots of regional cooking. "I do not alter traditional recipes such as spaghetti and meatballs."

After years at Lucia's, Lisa enrolled at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, graduating in 1993. Her goal was to open a restaurant and finally, in 2004, she realized the dream. With a laugh, she describes Mirchi Cafè and Masala Pizza as "ethnically confused." The menu lists some dishes that are ethnically correct and others that borrow style and taste from each other. Although the restaurant's dècor exhibits many of Lisa's pictures taken in Pakistan, she describes her food as "American comfort food with a twist." She notes that many dishes served in Italian restaurants such as pizza and spaghetti with meatballs are actually "Americanized" versions of Italian cooking.

At Mirchi, "hand-spun, New York style" pizza can follow tradition with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese or the adventurous can, as Lisa says, give it a "twist!" She says that a creamy masala sauce and chicken tikka topping can shift this Italian specialty toward international flavors and a different experience.

Pizza, a standard of Mirchi Cafè, was a close call for Lisa when opening the restaurant. She wanted to continue the Lucia tradition using the same type of oven, preparation area and, of course use the family recipe for pizza dough. Yet, Lisa mixed batch after batch of dough without success. After 100 pounds of wasted dough, in despair, she asked family members for help, but no one seemed to know what was missing. Finally, about to give up her quest, Lisa asked her grandmother Lucia about it and was told that somewhere a small piece of paper held the secret, but the location was unknown. A few days later, grandmother Lucia called excitedly and told Lisa that in a dream, Dick, her deceased husband, revealed the location of the recipe - in his wallet. Lucia had the wallet and looked inside; sure enough, there was a small scrap of paper with the recipe!

Some dishes are familiar yet contain interesting and welcome changes. Cole slaw, for example, is prepared in the traditional "American" manner but with "a few different spices, a bit of cilantro and peanuts so it is just a little bit different; but when you look at it and taste it, you know it is cole slaw."

Lisa says that whether a customer orders pizza, steak, hamburgers, salads, vegetarian specialties or fries, Mirchi Cafè & Masala Pizza will cook to that customer's taste. Scanning the menu, traditional favorites include spaghetti with meatballs, traditional pizza, chicken parmigiana and beef pepper cheese steaks. For those who crave a bit of flavor twist, Mirchi offers the Lahori burger which Lisa says is "still a burger and comforting but introduces you to some new flavors" or the Sheezan club sandwich, similar to a traditional club sandwich, but with a slice of breast of chicken flavored with zesty "tikka" sauce. Once indoctrinated, Mirchi fans will enjoy the culinary culture clash that can surprise yet always delight. Sometimes explanations of exactly which cooking influence - Pakistani, Indian, Italian, Asian or American - is dominant in a dish can be elusive. "That is why I call our cuisine "confused," quipped Lisa.

Lisa makes sure diners are treated to exquisite dining at moderate prices throughout their visit. This includes a dessert counter of delights baked on site that boasts a light and tasty Tiramisu, silky cheesecake, cr¸me brulee, chocolate cake or a slice of ginger-lime coconut cake.

Tucked in behind Custom Kitchens and facing 24 Hour Fitness on Fremont Boulevard, Mirchi Cafè and Masala Pizza is challenging to find the first time, but return trips are guaranteed. Lisa and her staff are waiting to help you discover why Mirchi has become a favorite for many Tri-City residents.

Mirchi Cafè and Masala Pizza
40900 Fremont Blvd., #H, Fremont
(510) 623-8500

Tuesday - Thursday
11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Friday & Saturday
12 p.m. - 10 p.m.
12 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Closed Monday

Catering available

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