Zam Zam Market is Like a Biryani & Tandoori Halfway House

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Ever since moving to Culver City a year ago, I’ve been working my way up the South Asian food totem pole.  I started at India Sweets and Spices, which I thought was pretty amazing- that is until I tried Samosa House and Samosa House East, which were even better.  I followed that up with a visit to Mayura’s all you can eat lunch buffet (for those who want meat) and ended up at what I think is the absolute best Indian food steam table on the westside: Bawarchi (and its infamous chef).  Regardless of which place is your personal favorite, one thing is now undeniable… the Culver City/Palms area has the best Indian food in all of Los Angeles.  And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I found out about Zam Zam Market.

Located on Washington Blvd in Culver City, just East of where Washington splits into two different streets, it would be wrong to call Zam Zam a “hidden” gem.  I live right around the corner from the place and had seen it a ton of times.  The giant “HALAL” sign in the window was particularly intriguing to me (for reasons that should be obvious to anybody who has seen a street food cart in NYC), but the place is never open.  And even if it was, looking in the window didn’t exactly inspire confidence.  It’s not so much a market as just a giant space with a few half empty shelves, a makeshift cooking area behind a counter, half empty drink fridges in the back, and a few tables that always seem to have chairs stacked on top of them. I’d sooner believe it was a front for the Pakistani mafia, or a place for heroin addicts to crash before I would consider it a viable place to get lunch.  That is until Profiled Lunch’er Brandon mentioned that they made the best biryani, tandoori and kebabs “in existence.”  This can’t possibly be true.

And yet…

After checking Yelp, which seemed to indicate that the place is only open Thursday-Sunday, I visited on a Thursday during lunch… only to find the door closed and locked.  WTF?!  I returned the next day, but couldn’t for the life of me find a parking space.  (There’s a mosque a block away, which has services during lunchtime on Fridays and finding parking is pretty tricky.)  Learning from the week before, I decided to ride my bike to the place last Friday and finally hit the jackpot!

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Success.  They were open, and there appeared to be some kind of food stacked in containers on the counter.  Once you get the full story, Zam Zam isn’t really that mysterious.  It’s a place to grab halal food to go after praying in the (gigantic) mosque a block away.  They’re open Thursday night for dinner only, and then Friday, Saturday and Sunday for lunch and dinner (presumably because weekend services are the most popular.)  The food is stacked on the counter so they can quickly serve people after the Friday prayer ends around 1:30pm… but they will happily serve anybody at any time.

The food is Pakistani, and there are four options that seem to be available on most Fridays.  Chicken biryani for $7, lamb pulau for $8, two chicken or beef kebabs plus naan for $5, or tandoori chicken ($6 for boneless, $7 for bone-in).  Naturally, I had to try it all.

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The lamb pulau was the first thing I tried, and I was completely blown away by my first bite.  Don’t let the simple appearance fool you, this rice was one of the most surprisingly delicious bites of rice I have ever had.  Rich and meaty from the fat of the lamb, but subtly sweet and fragrant from what I’m guessing was a healthy amount of cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin and corriander, this dish might be the perfect representation of Zam Zam- being shocked by how good something so plain and simple appears.  You know the cooking is top notch when the rice itself completely overshadows the chunks of tender lamb inside it.

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Once I had tasted the magic of the pulau, the outstanding chicken biryani was far less of a surprise.  Spicy and flavorful, if you called this the best biryani you’ve ever had, I wouldn’t argue with you.

So… best pulau I’ve ever had? Check.  Best biryani I’ve ever had? Probably.  Can we get the trifecta?

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Why not.  Best tandoori chicken of all time?  I can’t really imagine a better one.   Forget everything you know about the dry on the outside, dry on the inside tandoori chicken. Not only was this chicken moist and tender on the inside, but you could see where the freshly made wet rub had been smeared onto the outside by hand.  No pre-fabbed dry rub went on this chicken.  It’s home-made Pakistani food at its finest… the kind where you can actually visualize somebody smearing the rub into the crevices of the chicken.  (A good thing, in my book!)

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Oh, and for $1 you can get a warm homemade piece of naan.  At any other Indian place in L.A. I would have been super excited about this bread… but here, it’s “of course their naan is amazing”.   It comes with an order of the ground meat kebabs (which are also, not surprisingly, very good) or you can get a piece ala carte for $1.

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Oh, and if you see a tray of meat filled pastries on the counter, get one.  They’re also perfect.  (As if it had to be said.)

Of course Zam Zam isn’t for everybody.  If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like little bones in your rice, or eating around inedible spices, this place might not be for you.  And if you don’t like things spicy in general, there’s no ordering this stuff “mild”.  Plus there’s no menu, the only weekday it’s open is Friday, and depending on what time you go the food may or may not be ready.  In other words, they’re preparing food for the people praying at the mosque- not for you.  That being said, the (I’m assuming) husband and wife team that run the place are amazingly friendly, and more than happy to serve their food to anybody who walks in off the street.

I did my best to find out when exactly they’re open and what things they serve on what days, but was repeatedly told to “just call”.   It seemed like they always have biryani and pulau for lunch on Friday, but the tandoori might not always be finished in time for lunch? (Obviously it was ready at 1:30 on the day I was there.)  As for the weekends, I think they have everything all weekend… but if you’re concerned, or you’re traveling a long distance, just call. They’re clearly used to it.

In 5 years of actively seeking out delicious lunches in the most unlikely places, I’ve been to my share of dives- many of which turned out to be awesome.  But if you created a chart for every restaurant I’ve been to that showed how unpromising the place looked, compared to how great it turned out to be, Zam Zam would hands down be the largest  gap.  As tough as this nut was to crack, and as terrible as it looked from the outside (and the inside) it really was amazing and I will go out of my to go back.  You tend to jump through hoops when the best biryani/tandoori/pulau is involved.

THE + (What somebody who likes this place will say)

  • This could be the best biryani and best tandoori chicken I’ve ever had
  • Everything is fresh and completely homemade
  • So spicy and flavorful
  • The pulau looks so boring… I can’t believe how tasty it was
  • Don’t let the looks of the place fool you.  The food is amazing, and they got an A from the DOH

THE – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)

  • I don’t like spicy food
  • I don’t like bones in my food
  • Wait… so they don’t have official hours?  No menu?  Not open for lunch on any day but Friday? And the food might not be ready if you get there at Noon?
  • Parking is super hard to find on Fridays because of the prayer services at the mosque
  • There are tables where you can sit and eat, but it really is take out only

Zam Zam Market, 11028 Washington Blvd, Culver City 310-841-2504

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