Comfort food varies for different people and cultures. Saffron, an Indian and Pakistani restaurant on Valley Mills, offers a particular kind of comfort food you may not even know you’re craving: Indian home cooking.
There may be no better way to warm your belly than by filling it with rich, heavily spiced curries, tender grilled meats, and billows of fluffy basmati rice speckled with cumin seeds and the occasional cinnamon stick or bay leaf. The Ali family behind Saffron makes homey North Indian and Pakistani food guaranteed to welcome and comfort the weary, so order extra naan as if it were a warming blanket and dig in.
Slow Food Served Hot
“Indian food is slow food,” says Lamisa Ali, whose father Jawed decided to open a restaurant in Waco during the pandemic. “It’s not about quick and easy. It takes time for you to get the right flavors and aromas.”
Everything at Saffron is cooked to order, except for dishes like the biryani, which require four to five hours in the kitchen before they’re plate-ready. “Those 30-minute biryani recipes are impossible,” says Lamisa. And while the biryani and the butter chicken are the two most popular dishes at Saffron, there are many other dishes worth exploring.
Start off your meal with something from the chaat menu, the closest thing she likens to fast Indian food.
The pani puri chaat is especially fun to eat, consisting of bite-sized hollow puri or pastry puffs, and pani (or water, in this case), a liquidy sauce consisting of mint, cumin, and chaat masala. Use your finger to punch a hole in the top of the pani, fill it with an accompanying mix of potatoes, chickpeas, chopped red onions, and cilantro, drizzle it with the puri and sweet-sour tamarind chutney, and pop the whole thing in your mouth. It’s a multi-sensory experience, combining sweet, sour, creaminess, and crunch that leaves a lingering wisp of mint on the palate.
The ragda patties are another appetizer worth sharing with the table. Two large, pan-fried mashed potato patties (aloo tikki) arrive smothered in an unspicy split pea curry and sprinkled with crumbled crunchy sev, a deep-fried gram flour noodle. The green chile and tamarind chutneys on top add a touch of heat, a ton of herbiness, and a little of that sweet-sour combo to complement the starchiness of the potatoes.
An Entree for Every Palate
There is a long list of delicious entrees to choose from, but you can’t go wrong with a curry or anything grilled in Saffron’s 500° F tandoor oven.
(Pro tip: most of the dishes lean towards being fairly spicy, so emphasize mild with your server if you have heat-sensitive taste buds.)
Beef bihari kababs, a Pakistani specialty, are thinly-sliced strips of beef marinated in a spicy house masala and house-made yogurt until meltingly tender. Then, they’re lowered into the tandoor oven until roasted and are served with equally well-roasted onions and bell peppers. It’s deceptively simple, very spicy, and very good.
The lamb or chicken karahi, a dish the server at Saffron described as having “the most complex palate,” features a luxurious, spicy curry with jalapenos and whole serranos that is, indeed, addictively complex. You will find yourself heaping spoon after spoon into your mouth despite (or because of) the beads of chile sweat forming on your upper lip.
Vegetarians have many good options here, including the spinach-laced palak paneer, with large cubes of house-made paneer cheese lending sweet dairy creaminess to balance out the heat from what Lamisa described as a “very original,” chile pepper. This small, round, red mystery chile adds a punch of flavor and no small amount of heat to a creamy curry seasoned with black cardamom, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, and cumin seeds.
The naan, made with the deft hands of Ali’s Uncle Dilawar, is everything you want naan to be: a perfect combination of flaky, chewy, and bubble-crisped from the clay oven. And the rice? Its generous-but-gentle spicing adds a welcome counterpoint to all those chiles.
(Another pro tip: don’t skimp on the naan or the rice.)
It’s A Family Affair
The Ali family is new to the restaurant business, and it’s an all-hands-on-deck operation, with Lamisa Ali and her brother Al doing double duty in the kitchen and front-of-house, Ali’s father Jawed prepping and grilling meats in the tandoor oven, Lamisa’s mother Rubina tending all the stoves in the kitchen, and close family friends helping to cook, serve guests, and run food. Even Lamisa’s sister comes down from nursing school in Dallas to help out on the weekends.
“When you have a local business, you end up doing everything,” says Lamisa.
Running a restaurant can be grueling, and she is very candid about the realities of working with family. The restaurant was her father’s dream, but everyone is expected to do their part.
“We were thrown into this,” says Lamisa, who left her MBA program at Tarleton to help her family run Saffron. “It keeps us occupied. Many businesses closed down during the pandemic, but this is something my dad always dreamed of having. He wanted to have a restaurant. If he can sacrifice a lot of things for us, I’m not selfish enough to be like, ‘You’re on your own.’”
Rubina Ali, Lamisa’s mother, is the driving force behind the menu and does the lion’s share of cooking.
“The funny thing is,” says Lamisa, “she hates it, ever since I was young. But when she and her sisters were young [in Pakistan], they had the choice to go to college or do household chores. She chose not to go to college, so she got stuck cooking.”
The result was that Rubina’s cooking is excellent, and the entire Ali family is committed to serving the best Indian food in Waco, their Indian food.
“It’s never going to be the same for everybody,” admits Lamisa, referencing the occasional customer comment that a dish from Saffron is not the same as one from another Indian restaurant. “Dishes from different regions have different names, different ingredients. There are so many instances of that.”
What you will experience is Ali family home cooking at its finest.
This is one of Lamisa Ali’s favorite dishes. It is commonly served at Indian dhabas (roadside eateries) and is relatively simple to prepare, but make sure you allow time to marinate the meat or vegetables.
While 65 Masala is usually served with chicken, Lamisa recommends using cauliflower for an excellent vegetarian spin on it.
Prepare the tarka
Tarka, or tadka, is a classic spice preparation that is essential to this recipe. Tarka means “tempering,” which in this case refers to the process of pan roasting the spices in oil to awaken their aromatics.
1 T ghee
1 T ginger paste (crushed in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle)
1 T garlic paste (crushed in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle)
1 fresh serrano pepper, chopped
1 T fresh curry leaves (can omit if unavailable)
½ T kashmiri chili powder
1 T turmeric
½ T cumin powder
½ T garam masala *(see note below)
Dash of salt and pepper to taste
Melt the ghee in a skillet or wok on medium-high heat, then add all of the ingredients and stir continuously until fragrant but not burnt (2–3 minutes). Pour tarka into a bowl and set aside while you prepare the chicken or cauliflower.
Prepare the chicken or cauliflower
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into one-inch chunks
1 lb. cauliflower, cut into florets
2 T lemon juice
3 c neutral oil such as peanut or canola for frying
½ c whole milk yogurt (or vegan yogurt, if preferred)
Cilantro, chopped for garnish
Combine the chicken or cauliflower with the lemon juice and all but 2 tablespoons of the tarka, reserving the last two tablespoons for garnish. Allow the chicken to marinate in the fridge for a minimum of three hours and up to overnight (marinate the cauliflower for just 30 minutes to avoid sogginess).
Fill wok or skillet with the oil and heat to 350° F. Carefully add the chicken or cauliflower pieces to the hot oil and fry until golden brown, draining them on a paper-lined plate or bowl when they are finished. (Depending on the size of your wok or skillet, you may need to fry in batches to avoid overcrowding).
In a skillet over low heat, toss the fried chicken or cauliflower with the reserved 2 T of tarka and the yogurt, tossing to combine. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve hot on its own or with naan or basmati rice.
*While you can buy pre-made garam masala, it is much better to make your own. “Garam” means hot and “masala” means spice, so you’ll be roasting these spices similarly to the tarka, but without oil. It’s easy to prepare, and the masala will keep well in a spice jar for several months.
Every family’s masala recipe is different, but the Ali’s recipe is as follows:
Combine equal parts cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, whole black pepper, cumin seeds, black cardamom, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, bay leaves, and whole red chile peppers of your choice in a dry, medium skillet. Roast in skillet on medium high heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant. Allow spices to cool, then grind in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle and store in an airtight container.
“You shouldn’t have to have a basic or generic restaurant,” says Lamisa, “and I think that’s what I like about local businesses. They’re never the same. Everyone is different, and they have their own way. Like artists, they don’t paint the same things.”
Treat yourself to a feast from Saffron and let the Ali family show you how they do Indian and Pakistani food, their own way. You’ll be happy you did.
Saffron is located at 416 North Valley Mills Drive and is open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 am to 9 pm and Friday through Sunday from 11 am to 10 pm. If you want to try a variety of dishes, don’t miss the lunch buffet on Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm.
Learn more about Waco’s local food scene on the Waco Insider podcast Eat, Drink, Repeat, hosted by Angelica Mazé.