The $5 footlong from Subway now actually costs $6. The quintessential dollar cup of joe is becoming harder to find than its single-origin cousin at twice the price. And fast food in general is more expensive than ever, even as the cost of dining in declines. Yet at a recent dinner out, I managed to load up on three plates' worth of chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, lamb vindaloo, daal, and naan, for a grand total of $12.
I ate this comforting meal at one of America's countless Indian and Pakistani buffets,* scattered throughout booming cities and backwater towns. As I polished off my final bite of rice pudding—I never skip dessert—I couldn't help but think that Indian buffets are too good to be true.
* Most of the dishes I had on my plate are Punjabi in origin and date back to well before Pakistan's founding in 1947, blurring the distinction between the two places where food is concerned. Calling this type of restaurant an "Indian buffet" is convenient if inexact shorthand in the US, even when the owners are Pakistani, as in the case of the restaurant I visited.
Over the last several decades, the Indian buffet has remained a consistently inexpensive restaurant meal. According to data collected by Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University, Indian restaurants, along with Chinese and Thai restaurants, have raised menu prices less since the '80s than their Mexican, Vietnamese, and Korean counterparts. So how do these places make ends meet?
After thumbing through a mess of online reviews and recommendations, I reached out to the owners of an Indian buffet close to my house in Oakland, California. They agreed to let me spend a day at the restaurant, with full access to the operation's inner workings.
Marhaba Indian and Pakistani Halal Cuisine sits at the border of Oakland's Chinatown, where old ladies sell foraged greens from picnic blankets, and small dim sum restaurants, their windows cluttered with roast duck, are tucked beside towering office buildings and brand-new condominiums. Placed between these two vastly different worlds, Marhaba happily serves a mixture of people—Chinese shop owners enjoy a quick lunch break while an investment banker at the next table types away on two computers. Inside the restaurant is a hodgepodge of American flags, sparkly necklaces draped over paintings of Indian holy sites, and a large tapestry of Mecca. A buffet table, adorned with flashing fairy lights, takes up one full side of the dining room. A high, curved ceiling softens the chattering of the dining room and the Indian dance music that blares from a TV above the buffet. On the bit of sidewalk outside the restaurant, a sandwich board pulls in hungry passersby.
Bibi Ghazala and Raja Khalid, the owners of Marhaba, show up at their restaurant by 10 o'clock every morning, before any other businesses on the street are open. The couple is middle-aged, and both are bursting with energy. They walk straight to the kitchen, Bibi's wrists jingling with gold bracelets. Raja, dressed plainly in slacks and a white button-up shirt, talks quickly in Urdu to his cousin Khalid, who's spent the last hour setting up chairs in the dining room and skewering bright orange pieces of chicken to go into the tandoor. Another cook is halfway through peeling and slicing a 100-pound bag of onions—they'll all be used up by the next morning. Two more cooks stand at the stove, stirring pots full of spicy potatoes, braised lamb, and chunks of paneer swimming in creamy spinach. One by one, the pots and pans are emptied into trays and carried out to the buffet table.
By the time the first round of skewers is finally pulled out of the tandoor, the table is laden with chickpeas, cauliflower, lamb, chicken, and goat, the dining room filled with the sweet mixed aroma of cardamom, turmeric, garam masala, and fresh chilies. Back in the kitchen, Raja is using a metal paddle taller than he is to stir a vat of goat curry; the pot takes up a large corner of the kitchen and reaches up to his waist.
Before the restaurant opens at 11, Haroon, the rice delivery guy, comes in with a dolly piled precariously with bags of rice. Over the next hour, Haroon wheels in 80 bags—over 3,000 pounds of rice in all, enough to last the restaurant about six months. The company he runs with his friend provides nothing but rice, supplying more than 200 Bay Area restaurants. Before Haroon leaves, he fills a plate at the buffet—Raja won't let him leave without eating.
To Bibi's delight, Azhar Meood walks in as Haroon forks the last bit of curry on his plate. "My son, my lovely son," she announces to the room. Azhar, in his mid-20s, is beaming as he greets his mother and father. He gets a kiss on the head and sits down to chat with Haroon until a to-go order comes in.
Raja and Azhar handle all the deliveries, and when they are out, Bibi takes care of the restaurant on her own. She speaks little English; when customers ask for their check, she sometimes just smiles and says, "Eat more food! Try the rice pudding." More often than not, people look over at the rice pudding and help themselves to a bowl or two. I notice after a few hours that there is no waitstaff, unless you count Bibi, who rolls a cart through the restaurant clearing tables. Every dish ordered à la carte is brought to the table by the cook who made it, blurring the divide between front and back of house. I watch Khalid wait for a customer to taste the biryani before rushing back to the kitchen to fill orders.
We sit at the cash register while Bibi organizes receipts and answers the phone. I ask her if she misses Pakistan, and her response comes quickly. "Here, the man and the woman is the same thing, more..." She stops to rack her brain for the right word. "Freedom! In Urdu, it's azadi."
In the kitchen, Khalid continues skewering chicken for the tandoor. Very little of the food here is made in advance or reheated, and Raja frequently walks through the dining room assuring his customers that "the samosas are almost ready" and "the lamb just takes a little longer." Yehia, another cook, with a soft smile and a head of peppered gray hair, rolls out dough for naan. He used to run a barbershop in Jordan, where his five children still live. Yehia stands between a prep table and the tandoor, splashing each rolled-out piece of bread lightly with water before slapping it onto the wall of the oven, where it quickly puffs up. He's careful not to take his eyes from the oven for too long, lest he be forced to add another blackened naan to the small pile of rejects sitting on the counter. Every few minutes, Raja comes into the kitchen and taps a piece of bread, slices off a corner, or breaks a sheet in half. When he's satisfied that the bread has crisped around the corners and become light and airy in the middle, he brushes each piece with butter and carries a wicker basket full of steaming naan into the now-busy dining room.
He asks everyone how they like their food, and beams when his customers are satisfied. "I like it when the people love the food," Raja says. "I love my clients, and I love my Marhaba." The word, he tells me, means "welcome" in Arabic. "Like when someone comes to your house, you say, 'Oh, welcome, welcome.'"
Cheapness isn't just a selling point to Raja; it's a foundational belief. "I know it's not enough for that much food. Even if you go to Subway, McDonald's, you only get served six inches of sandwich. Take the soda, and it costs you $11 or $12. You can't even be full. Still hungry. I have," he stops to think for a minute, "40 items, Mash'Allah [Arabic for god willed it], all you can eat. Everybody can afford. Here, some people make a lot of money. Some people less money. They cannot afford $20 buffet. I put a little less price, everybody can enjoy." To reduce his labor costs so he can charge a little less, Raja works six days a week—every day the restaurant is open. "Everything from the God," he tells me.
Long past lunchtime, to-go orders stream into the kitchen, where Raja and Azhar fill brown paper bags, call out incoming orders, then rush to their truck to deliver the still-steaming food. When the restaurant finally settles down at 3:30 p.m., Raja and Bibi sit down together for their own late lunch. They're quietly immersed in a video on Bibi's phone. Azhar's wife in Pakistan had a baby boy just two weeks ago. He gazes out from the screen, tiny hands grabbing at the air. As soon as all the paperwork clears, Azhar's wife and their baby are moving to America, into the house Azhar now shares with Raja and Bibi.
Bibi and Raja both have a lot of family still in Pakistan, and they make sure to send money home. Beyond taking care of his immediate family, Raja is looking out for a community thousands of miles away. In 2015 alone, Pakistani immigrants in America sent more than a billion dollars to friends and family back home.
In the 30 minutes of calm before dinner orders start pouring in, Khalid rolls out a rug in the small side dining room and prays. Then he takes a nap on the couch, with a scarf over his head and his knees tucked into his stomach. Bibi sits on a stool at the cash register, watching a movie on her phone—San Francisco's just been hit by a tsunami, and cars are floating away like specks of dust on the horizon. It's an English-language movie without subtitles, but she gets the gist.
The first dinner guest of the night fills up a plastic to-go carton from the buffet before explaining he doesn't have enough money to pay. Raja lets him leave with as much food as he wants. He says it's good for bringing in new business, but I notice Raja gives as much food to his returning customers as he does to people eating at Marhaba for the first time. During the month of Ramadan, Raja says he makes sure everyone breaking the fast at the restaurant eats for free. Even if they're Christian...and not breaking the fast.
To charge such low prices, I've learned, these restaurants rely on customers having a range of appetites: While I'm inhaling a third or fourth plate of food, my companion is full after eating their complimentary soup and a bowl of lentils. The big eaters are balanced out by the little eaters. But at Marhaba, even the little eaters leave laden with rice pudding, biryani, and tandoori chicken. Every time I try to get a better understanding of how Raja makes ends meet, he tells me it's all thanks to God's good will. By 7 p.m., I'm starting to believe him.
Dinnertime at Marhaba feels slow, even though the kitchen is humming with activity. Almost all the business around dinner is to-go orders, and Raja and Azhar stay busy delivering around the neighborhood.
As the last few diners trickle out, Raja doesn't let a single one leave without a plastic carton of biryani—he doesn't like reheating anything he can make fresh, so tomorrow he'll make a new batch regardless. Azhar lowers the restaurant's metal shutter halfway, and Yehia hoses off the kitchen floor. Raja shakes my hand and hugs me twice; Bibi asks if I'm coming back tomorrow. The LED "Open" sign in the window flickers off, and Raja brings in the sandwich board.
Another 13-hour day is finished, and the next one is quickly approaching. Azhar stands out front, looking exhausted, as his parents drive away. I ask him how they manage to do this day after day. "My dad's thinking is a little different," he tells me. "He doesn't think about money. Just enough to get by. People sometimes ask how he does it...God."
As I head home, stomach full to bursting, I'm still not quite sure how this restaurant manages to stay afloat. And I know that the next time I fill up my plate at the buffet table, I'll be overwhelmed with the same sense of awe and incredulity that first led me to Marhaba Indian and Pakistani Halal Cuisine looking for an answer. I worry, thinking about all the customers who might take advantage of the kindness they encounter at Marhaba. But then again, how could anyone steal from a restaurant that really does want them to eat all they can?
Editor's Note: The original version of this story claimed that the author's total bill was $10. In fact, as some of our readers pointed out, as one of our photos indicates, and as the owners of Marhaba have confirmed, the price of the lunch buffet has actually risen to $11.99. The price on the sandwich board when our author visited still read $9.99. We regret the error and have updated the story to reflect the restaurant's current pricing.