The Warmth of Zareen’s

First-time restaurateur Zareen Khan has created a gem in Zareen's in Mountain View and Palo Alto.
First-time restaurateur Zareen Khan has created a gem in Zareen’s in Mountain View and Palo Alto.

This summer, when timing necessitated postponing my birthday dinner at Michelin three-starred Manresa to two months later, my husband asked me where I wanted to go instead on my actual birthday weekend. I immediately knew the spot.

It was another Michelin-recognized establishment.

One where the food would be equally unforgettable and fill me with similar contentment.

And where my husband would be especially thrilled because it turned out to be the least expensive birthday dinner he’d ever bought me.

It was, of course, Zareen’s.

Though she had never opened a restaurant before, Pakistani-born Zareen Khan decided to do just that when she opened the original fast-casual Zareen’s in Mountain View on 2014. It proved such a hit that two years later, she opened a second, larger Zareen’s on California Avenue in Palo Alto, which is the one we frequent. In 2020, look for a third and larger location to open in downtown Redwood City.

The unassuming establishment on California Avenue in Palo Alto is always crowded.
The unassuming establishment on California Avenue in Palo Alto is always crowded.
On a sunny day, the sidewalk tables fill up fast. Khan has regulars who come every week.
On a sunny day, the sidewalk tables fill up fast. Khan has regulars who come every week.

Tech workers who get all the free food they want on their campuses gladly flock to Zareen’s to stand in line and, yes, pay their own money, for her incredible contemporary Pakistani-Indian food. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have dined here. And Chef Anthony Secviar and Master Sommelier Dennis Kelly, the team behind Michelin-starred Protege in Palo Alto across the street from Zareen’s, have made no secret about being so addicted to Zareen’s chicken tikka masala that they eat it weekly.

Besides her business acumen and way with spices, Khan is also admired for her fortitude and compassion. Realizing the hours-long commutes many of her employees had because they couldn’t afford to live on the pricey Peninsula, Khan actually took the step in 2017 to buy a home in Menlo Park, where she rents out rooms to her employees for all of $500 per month.

If all of that together doesn’t make you realize how special Zareen’s is, the food will leave no doubt about it. If you’ve had your share of Indian food, particularly at buffet spreads, you’ll understand what I say when there’s nothing necessarily bad about them. The food is tasty and filling. But the flavors often taste a bit muted, as if it’s all been stewed and cooked down so much as to leave its presence rather dialed down.

In contrast, at Zareen’s, the volume has been turned up. There’s a vitality to the food here. It tastes lively and alive — in a way that other’s don’t.

Chicken samosas like you've never had before.
Chicken samosas like you’ve never had before.

Take the samosas — which Michelin has singled out. I admit I’ve never been that excited about samosas. And I might not have never ordered them here had I not seen them touted by that guide. The Memoni chicken samosas (two for $4.99) are fried to order, so they arrive nearly too hot to tear into. Let them cool for a minute or two, and your patience is rewarded when you take a bite into the supremely flaky and crisp wrappers that give way to a minced chicken filling that Khan learned to make from her mother. The chicken is juicy and imbued with the warmth of earthy-sweet spices. How good were these? I nearly ordered another round after devouring them.

The larger vegetarian samosas.
The larger vegetarian samosas.

The vegetable samosas (two for $6.50) are larger, heavier tasting, and filled with a spiced potato mixture. They’re delightful but maybe not as interesting as the chicken version.

A mango lassi that made me love mango lassi.
A mango lassi that made me love mango lassi.

The mango lassi ($3.85) here changed my mind again about mango lassi. After having one too many elsewhere that were just too sweet for my liking, I was dubious when Khan brought one for me to try. Hers was again decidedly different — creamy, tangy, fruity, thick, and just sweet enough. This version made me truly appreciate how good this traditional beverage can be.

Speaking of which, don’t miss the chai here. It’s so wonderful — again, not too sweet but infused with cardamom and plenty more fragrant spices. Patrons go so wild for it that they were taking advantage of the complimentary dispenser. So much so that Khan had to limit people to two small Chinese-teacup-size portions for free (on the honor system).

Although Zareen’s does wraps, sliders and burgers, I always go for the traditional thalis ($11.25 to $13.99 for non-vegetarian ones), served on a round metal platter with compartments for salad, dal, rice and vegetables. The chicken tikka masala is every bit as satisfying as it’s billed as, with tender chunks of chicken bobbing in a creamy, spiced curry sauce. It’s total comfort food. And you’ll want to sop up all that velvety sauce with plenty of fluffy rice.

The chicken tikka masala -- good to the last bite.
The chicken tikka masala — good to the last bite.
Lamb curry.
Lamb curry.
Lamb with spinach.
Lamb with spinach.

The lamb curry is heady with tomatoes, cumin and turmeric while the palak gosht serves up lamb chunks in a stew-y sauce fortified with lots of spinach, adding a fresh minerality to the dish.

Khan wanted us to try her favorite dish on the menu: grilled chicken boti sizzler ($7.99). The platter indeed arrives at the table hot with the chicken and onions popping and sizzling. The chicken is smoky tasty, and fairly spicy. Even when your taste buds start to heat up, though, you can’t help but keep digging in for more, because the chicken is just addictive.

Sizzling chicken boti.
Sizzling chicken boti.

The naan ($1.29 to $4.99) is available in half and full orders. Go for the latter. Because these fluffy, blistered flatbreads are as fresh as they get, arriving hot to the table. The sesame naan, covered in white seeds, is especially good with its pronounced nutty taste.

Full-sized sesame naan (on top) and regular naan (underneath).
Full-sized sesame naan (on top) and regular naan (underneath).

The sheermal ($2.49) is a Persian flatbread I hadn’t had before. Flavored with saffron, milk and ghee, it is a must-order. It’s slightly sweet lavishly buttery layers. It’s practically like pastry. Enjoy with chai tea, and you’ll swoon.

Flatbread as pastry -- the sheermal.
Flatbread as pastry — the sheermal.

Zareen’s makes you feel good — in so many more ways than one.

More: A Visit to Protege Across the Street

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  • I absolutely love everything on Zareen’s menu and not just because she’s a dear friend and neighbor but because she put her heart and soul in her creations as I have watched her from day one when she started out in this field. You’ve written a great well deserved review and it’s a pleasure to connect with you Carolyn after almost two decades when you wrote an article on my Ramadan global recipes! Wish you both all the best.

  • Ooh, that mango lassi sounds especially good (glad it’s not overly sweet). Sending you belated birthday wishes 🙂

  • Definitely a different birthday meal from where your husband was probably expecting to take you but the food certainly explains why you would want to go. Belated birthday wishes and many more healthy and happy ones.

  • Karen and Liz: Thanks for the kind birthday wishes! Always appreciated. 😉

  • Happy Birthday!! I hope you get to try Manresa soon. The food from start to finish was fabulous!
    And thank you for bringing Zareen’s to our attention….I’d heard about it and wanted to try it but then forgot. Will be on top of my list now!

  • Nabeela: I did get to Manresa a couple months later. It was spectacular, as always. And glad that I could remind you of Zareen’s. It really is a special place.

  • Zareen and Umair Khan

    What a lovely write up. We are glad and Grateful to have you as a happy patron! Hope to see you again as we slowly come out of sheetlet in place

    Zareen and Umair

  • Zareen and Umair: Thanks so much! But you deserve all the credit for creating such a wonderful and vital restaurant with food that’s made with such care and thoughtfulness.

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