All roads lead to tandoori: Lahore Karahi's Zulfiqar Haider speaks

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Naan like his momma used to make at Lahore Karahi
PHOTO BY ALEX FINE

I spoke with Zulfiqar “Guddu” Haider, the man behind Lahore Karahi, late one Wednesday evening. The last customers were making their way out the door of his unassuming Tenderloin Pakistani restaurant after a busy night, the kitchen staff had begun to clean up and head home. Haider led me over to one side of his dining room, a wall lined with glowing Yelp and Zagat reviews, and newspaper features with pictures of Haider front and center, dramatically holding out a steaming sautee pan and smiling boldly.

A tall, mustached man with a smile that could melt your heart, Haider is the owner and head chef at Lahore. He prepares every dish that comes out of the kitchen. “You have to try the tandoori fish,” he gushes. “Nobody doesn’t like it!” It's not just Haider's cheerful demeanor and his smoky tandoori fish that brings the crowds to Lahore – eating here doesn’t leave a dent in your wallet. Most dishes are between $5 and $12 each, with naan and appetizers all under five dollars. Haider says he’s never felt pressure to raise prices.

Friends that know him well call him Guddu, a nickname that loosely translates to baby and was first given to him by his mother. His pet name seems fitting in the best sense of the word – even at the end of a long day in the kitchen, his face lights up with a youthful glee as talks shop at his Tenderloin mainstay. 

Born in Sahiwal Punjab in Pakistan, Haider says he was a goalie on his university's soccer team. He came to the States in 1994 and after his first stint in the restaurant industry at a pizza and pasta shop, took a job as cook at Shalimar, another popular Indian and Pakistani restaurant in the TL. Soon he was opening Taj Mahal, his first restaurant, in 1996, and then a Fremont location in 2003 named Curry Palace before he left to return to the city. “I live on Gough and Oak,” he says. “I wanted to be able to work close to where I live.” 

That led Haider to his next project, the challenging space that was Lahore Karahi. “The previous owners of this restaurant left because the location was hard. I took over and kept the name the same.” But the cooking was all his own, recipes passed down to Haider from his family in Pakistan. “All of my dishes come from my mother. She's always close to my heart. It’s like she’s in front of me when I’m cooking.” 

A fresh option from Lahore. Photo by Alex Fine

And while Haider struggled with his TL location to begin with, he was able to take his business to his current award-winning level. “At first, taxi drivers made this place run,” he remembers. “It was mostly all taxi drivers coming in and eating here -- but soon more and more people came.” He smiles as if to reflect my own unspoken thought: and the rest is history. With a packed house late on a Wednesday, a wall full of good press, and a perma-smile, it’s not difficult to see how far Haider has come in the seven years that Lahore Karahi has been his own.

Lahore Karahi

Tue - Sun 11:30 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.

612 O'Farrell, SF

(415) 567-8603

www.lahorekarahisanfrancisco.com

Beer and Wine

MC/V

Moderately Noisy

Wheelchair Accessible

 

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