VEGAN N’ CHICKEN: Vegan Friendly Indian & Pakistani Food
By Vickie Lewis
Having written dozens of restaurant reviews over the last several years, I must say that I truly enjoy the opportunity to eat authentic foods, inspired by the mothers and/or grandmothers of the hard-working business owners who learned their cooking skills from their elders. Such was our experience at Vegan N’ Chicken, where my guest and I enjoyed an assortment of delicious Halal Pakistani food selections prepared by the restaurant’s number one chef and owner, Abassi.
Abassi opened Vegan N’ Chicken nearly three years ago in 2016, although I’d not previously known of its existence. The small, casual, café-like restaurant is located amongst a few other small businesses in a short “strip mall” behind a gas station at the corner of San Pablo Dam Road and Valley View Road. I marveled that I’d passed by the restaurant many times as I traversed the San Pablo Dam Road, but had never noticed it there in spite of the prominent signage above the door. There is plenty of conveniently accessible parking for the restaurant and strip mall. The window near the restaurant entrance is adorned with enticing colorful pictures of many of the scrumptious entrees prepared within. A few outdoor tables and chairs were positioned in front of the restaurant for customers to dine outside, if desired.
My guest and I met with Abassi early on a Friday afternoon shortly after the restaurant opened. Vegan N’ Chicken is open seven days a week for dinner from 4:00 to 10:00 PM. Upon entry, Abassi personally welcomed us, and invited us to sit at a large corner table near the front window. The table was one of only two in the restaurant entrance area; however, an adjacent seating area has plenty of tables for customers wishing to dine in. A glass refrigerated case sits near the order/check-out counter and showcases an assortment of drinks and desserts which will be described later. Behind this area is the moderately-sized kitchen where Abassi prepares all of the delicious Indian and Pakistani cuisine, assisted by his son, Unzer, and his daughter, Mehik. Also noteworthy is a small stage nestled in the corner of the dining area, complete with speakers and an assortment of musical instruments. Abassi said that sometimes Karaoke is performed at the restaurant, and at other times, musicians will opt to gather to play music and sing. In fact, Abassi said he is a professional singer, and he will sometimes join in the music-making and singing.
Abassi started our dining experience by offering each of us cups of hot Chair tea (traditional Masala tea with milk) which is always available at no cost to restaurant customers.During the fall and winter months, Abassi also offers free fresh homemade soup to his customers. A self-service stand sits in the entry way where customers can serve themselves tea and/or soup, when available. The Chai tea was unsweetened and was wonderfully aromatic and delicious. Next, Abassi provided us with colorful paper tri-fold menus and asked us what we would like to eat for dinner. Since neither my guest nor myself dine regularly at Indian or Pakistani restaurants, we weren’t quite sure what to order—almost everything sounded appetizing based on the descriptions! So, we asked Abassi to choose a few items for us that we could share so that we could try a variety of food selections. Before ordering, he asked about our spice tolerance, and we told him that we both thought we could tolerate medium spiciness. He placed the order and while his son and daughter prepared the entrees, we had the opportunity to learn more about Abassi and his restaurant.
Although he has two Masters Degrees earned in Pakistan--one in Islamic Studies and the other in Homeopathic Medicine--he has always had a passion for cooking. He credits his mother and his grandmother for teaching him how to cook authentic dishes from his homeland, and nearly all of the food selections on Vegan N’ Chicken’s menu are adaptations of those original recipes. He has worked for many years in the restaurant industry both in his homeland and here in the United States. In Pakistan he also was a restaurant owner for a period of time. He emigrated to the U.S. approximately 20 years ago, and worked for various Pakistani restaurants before opening Vegan N’ Chicken. Suffice to say that with his wealth of experience, Abassi has mastered the art of cooking Indian and Pakistani food. Over the years, he has also picked up additional cooking tips from the Food Channel and the internet, and has experimented with creating various ethnic fusion recipes, including Chinese, Thai, and Caribbean, among others. However, none of these creations are on the Vegan N’ Chicken menu.
As we spoke, Unzer and Mehik began to deliver colorful savory dishes to the table. The presentation of each dish was beautiful and emanated the most wonderful aromas. We were served a variety of selections including: Chicken Tandoori (2 chicken legs cooked in a clay oven); Palak Paneer (spinach cooked with homemade cheese); Punjabi Curry (a special vegan curry dish [not on the menu]); Chicken Tikka Masala (boneless chicken pieces with tikka masala sauce); Basmati rice; and Garlic Naan (fresh bread baked in a clay oven topped with fresh garlic and cilantro.) What a feast we enjoyed! Abassi explained that the Chicken Tikka Masala, one of the most popular dishes in most Indian and Pakistani restaurants, is actually not a native dish. It was originally introduced by the United Kingdom (UK) ad is typically made with a tomato-based sauce and heavy cream. Abassi said that he doesn’t personally like Chicken Tikka Masala but keeps it on the menu due to its popularity, especially with American customers.
My guest and I both liked the Chicken Tikka Masala, but we did not find it as appealing as the other dishes that Abassi had ordered for us. We both agreed that the Chicken Tandoori was our favorite of the chicken selections. It was cooked to perfection—tender chicken legs with thighs attached, cooked to a golden-brown crispness on the outside and juicy and moist on the inside. Abassi informed us that the chicken is marinated for 24 hours in various herbs and spices before cooking, which gives it the wonderful flavor and tenderness. It was served on a bed of red onions and lime wedges, and was topped with jalapeno slices and cilantro. It will definitely be my “go to” meat selection when I return to dine at Vegan N’ Chicken! My overall favorite of all the dishes we were served was the Palak Paneer. The tender cooked spinach was served with chunks of homemade cheese (made on-site by Abassi) and topped with slivers of fresh ginger. It was hard to discern the flavor of the cheese specifically, but the combined flavor of the spinach, cheese and ginger was excellent. The Punjabi Curry was a yellow colored dish served with vegetables and a thick, creamy curry sauce. The flavorful spices used in all of the dishes was so appealing to us, and every bite we took was delicious! We enjoyed the Basmati rice because it was light and fluffy and not thick and stuck together like steamed white rice tends to be. And of course—who doesn’t like Naan? Besides plain Naan, Vegan N’ Chicken serves 8 other types of Naan. Ours had fresh garlic and cilantro generously spread atop the Naan and cooked in the clay oven. The end result was a delicious golden-brown flatbread that was wonderfully garlicky and irresistible! My guest and I both really enjoyed all of the food we sampled. Although the food was moderately spicy, it was tolerable and did not overshadow the flavor of the food—but I’ll admit that the spiciness did make my nose run!
Healthy eating is of great importance to Abassi, both personally and for his customers. All items on the Vegan N’ Chicken menu are always cooked fresh from scratch. Nothing used in the preparation of their meals is processed or frozen. As previously mentioned, Abassi makes cheese in-house that is used in some of the entrees, and also makes his own yogurt. Remarkably, he also makes his own dry spices following a secret family recipe. Nearly everything on the menu is Gluten Free, and very little oil is used in food preparation. There are plenty of vegan specialties on the menu, and contrary to the restaurant name, Vegan N’ Chicken also specializes in entrees made with lamb, beef, and seafood. Whether customers order food to go or to dine at the restaurant, regulars know to allow at least 20 minutes for the “from scratch” food preparation. Based on our experience, the extra time required to prepare the food is well worth the wait!
Remember the glass refrigerated case mentioned earlier? This case houses bottles of traditional Lassi and Mango Lassi, made from scratch at the restaurant. Lassi is a popular traditional Indian yogurt-based drink that is blended with yogurt, sugar, and sometimes fruit. Abassi poured a sample of Mango Lassi for me and my guest. It was cool, creamy, rich, mildly-sweet, and very delicious. Abassi generally gives small cups of Lassi to the children who come to Vegan N’ Chicken, and it is always a big hit! Sharing the refrigerated space with the Lassi drinks were individually portioned desserts called Kheer (rice pudding) as well as another popular dessert, Gulab Jamun (Honey Buns). The restaurant also offers a third type of dessert, Falooda Ice Cream. We learned that Falooda refers to a popular traditional Indian ice cream dessert. My guest and I both love ice cream, and since we expressed interest in the Falooda, we were soon each treated to our own dish of this interesting dessert. Served in small sundae bowls, the Falooda ice cream includes white vermicelli noodles, chia seeds, rose water, and syrup, all mixed together with the ice cream and topped with a cherry! Ours was made with coconut ice cream, but vanilla and mango ice cream are also available options. Although it was a different experience eating noodles with ice cream, the dessert was sweet and refreshing and very enjoyable. Abassi also served us a bowl of Gulab Jamun, three honey balls immersed in a small amount of syrup. He explained the Gulab Jamun is another traditional Indian and Pakistani confection, made in-house by mixing Bisquick, cream, dry milk, cinnamon, and cardamom spice. Having already eaten so much wonderful food as well as the Falooda ice cream, my guest and I shared just one of the three honey balls. It was a rich dessert with an excellent sweet, yet spicy flavor, and had a dense consistency. Both the Falooda and the Gulab Jamun are excellent desserts to partake after enjoying the delicious, spicy flavors of the traditional Indian and Pakistani entrees.
Abassi and his son and daughter were consummate hosts during our visit. We were treated to wonderful food, drinks, and desserts while learning more about their family and Pakistani traditions. Abassi even took me into the kitchen to see the clay oven used to make Naan, as well as to cook many other of the food selections. Even though being the business owner generally requires him to work 14-hour days, seven days a week, it is clear that Abassi loves his work. He told us “You make food by your heart”, and his heart and passion clearly shone through to us during our visit. Abassi personally taught Unzer and Mehik how to cook and they also seem to have their father’s passion for the business. However, each is pursuing their own careers—Unzer’s goal is to be a software engineer, and Mehik’s desire is to become a doctor. Both will be attending college in the fall, but it is certain that they will still work with Abassi at Vegan N’ Chicken as often as possible.
Though the business is small, it is mighty, and also provides catering options. If interested, contact Unzer Abassi at (925) 451-4518 for more information. In the meantime, I highly recommend Vegan N’ Chicken to anyone who loves delicious ethnic cuisine, is interested in healthy eating, and loves supporting local small businesses. If you’ve not previously tried Indian/Pakistani cuisine, you must visit Abassi and allow him to cook for you. Abassi makes this promise: “If you don’t like the food, you don’t pay!” However, if your experience is anything like ours, you will love the food and make plans to return again and again. Don’t forget to enjoy the free Chai tea and free soup (fall/winter only), and please take a few moments to say hello to Abassi.
5337 Valley View Road, El Sobrante | (510) 243-7442 | Catering: (925) 451-4518 | vegannchickenca.com
Open 7 days a week, 4:00 PM – 10:00 PM for Dinner | Found on Facebook and Yelp