There’s a little place that people who drive down Washington Road probably have passed by hundreds of times and didn’t even realize it’s there.
Modeled after Chinese take-out places, Lahore Express is an authentic Indian/Pakistani cuisine restaurant that also does a lot of catering. Coming from Martinez, you’ll go just past Applebee’s and turn left at the little road to take you into a shopping center.
Once you drive in a little ways, Lahore Express will be on your right. It’s a little hard to notice at first, but if you get to Shannon’s, you’ve gone too far in.
The owner, Shakeel Khan, is a native of Pakistan whose family came to the states when he was in middle school. They ended up in Chicago, until Khan moved to Augusta to go to school at Augusta State University — his mother, who lives here as well, is Lahore’s main chef.
“It’s home-cooked, mom’s food — that’s the feel that you get,” Khan said. “It’s very authentic flavors that you’ll get from our food. And she has trained me (to cook) as well, so now I am under her shadows.”
He said the recipes are the same as those he grew up eating.
“Basically, it reminds me of home. And a lot of people come here from India and Pakistan,” he said. “And they’re like, for years, they haven’t found this home cooking since they left their countries. When they eat our food, they’re like, ‘Well, in 15 years or 20 years, this is the first time we have felt that way — that it’s authentic and it reminded us of home.’”
Many people who are accustomed to eating American food seem to be afraid to try Indian food, because they expect the flavors to be hotter than what they’re used to.
“The fear that I always see people having is that they automatically associate Indian food with extremely spicy food, and we’ve made a conscious effort of making sure that most of our dishes are not very spicy,” he said. “And they are surprised after they eat it; they’re like, ‘Well, we were completely surprised by how it was not that spicy; we expected it to be fire.’ And the interesting thing is that sometimes customers will come and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, it was awesome flavor, but can you kick it up a notch for us — can you make it a little more spicy?’ And we do that upon request, make it spicier.
“What we use in most dishes is so well balanced, that people are surprised that it is an Indian food, and they expected it to be very potent and hit-you-on-the-face.”
The food is heavily influenced by the Punjab region in Pakistan and India — an area that Khan says is famous for food. He noted that, like in America, the food in India and Pakistan is spicier the farther south you go, and it’s milder the farther north you go.
“The Punjab region has been lucky enough to have a combination of both, because it’s right in the middle, so we have influences of spicy food and of mild food,” he said. “So that’s why we can implement both spicy and mild on our menu.”
The menu might look a little foreign, with lots of words that aren’t native to English, but the staff can help you pick something out that you’ll love.
Some of the most popular dishes are the Chicken Biryani, the Lahori Chana Masala, and the Chicken Makani (butter chicken).
In the Chicken Biryani (pronounced bree-AH-nee), you’ll get seasoned chicken steamed with basmati rice in a tomato-based sauce, along with a bunch of spices and a touch of cilantro. It comes out to be a beautiful dish, with a mix of yellow and orange colors throughout the rice. There is enough food to make into two meals or to share.
Other dishes that are not rice-based will come with a side of cumin basmati rice. One of those dishes is Chicken Makani (the butter chicken).
“Butter chicken basically is a very popular dish that got introduced around the Mughal Empire time,” Khan said. “So back then, they wanted something very rich, creamy sauce, so butter chicken was introduced as a dish that would give that need of richness. So it has a very rich, creamy sauce, along with chicken that is grilled. Once we grill the chicken, we mix it with our creamy sauce, which is a tomato-based sauce. It’s very popular; we do a lot of catering orders of butter chicken.”
One of their most popular vegetarian dishes is the Lahori Chana Masala.
“The Lahori Chana Masala is basically a very popular dish in the Lahore, Punjab, area of India and Pakistan,” Khan said. “Mostly in Pakistan because that’s the reason that’s called Lahore. This is slow-cooked chickpeas seasoned with a very nice medley of spices, to a point where it brings harmony to the dish. It’s enjoyed usually with rice or with naan (an Indian flatbread).
“A lot of people eat it in the morning in the Punjab region. And it’s one thing that I saw back home in Pakistan growing up, that people always looked forward to a weekend breakfast, on a weekend when they’re off from office, they would grab Lahori Chana Masala and eat that first thing in the morning.”
Because of the made-to-order nature of the business, it’s easy to get a dish customized to your tastes. Many of the vegetarian options are vegan-friendly, but some of them are cooked with a yogurt — however, Khan said that can be removed for anyone seeking a vegan meal.
Lahore Express is open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Depending on the hour, customers can usually expect a 10- to 20-minute wait after placing their order. The food has become so popular with its regulars that there are a lot of requests to serve at lunchtime — and that might be a possibility in the future — but for now, the only way you can get it at lunchtime is through catering orders.
“We do catering on a regular basis for anywhere from five to 10 people, all the way up to 500-600 people,” Khan said. He said the restaurant requests that people give at least 48 hours’ notice for a catering order.
“We’re here to give a unique experience to customers, a unique Punjabi Indian and Pakistan experience,” Khan said. “It’s home-cooked food, so we don’t use any preservatives.
“It’s not gonna kick them on their faces,” he said with a laugh. “Hopefully not.”