Jersey City’s India Square is filled with restaurants specializing in a spicy, savory Hyderabadi-style biryani, and now Manhattan has its own new spot.
Hyderabadi Zaiqa opened one month ago in the walk-down space at 366 West 52nd Street just east of Ninth Avenue that was formerly Warkop, a warung (small Indonesian café) specializing in packaged ramen. The new tenant boasts a bright yellow interior with a few tables flanked by orange metal stools, an eating shelf, and a giant map showing the nearly 30 regional biryanis of India, scattered evenly across the subcontinent.
Why focus on Hyderabad where biryani is concerned? This southern Indian metropolis, famous for its tech industries, has a large Muslim population for whom the dish is a long tradition — it was at least partly inspired by Eastern Mediterranean pilafs. Biryani is available in Hyderabad in dozens of permutations, with meat or vegetable main ingredients and subtle spicing usually featuring saffron.
While the decor at Zaiqa (flavor in Urdu) is informal, the place settings are not, consisting of copper water glasses, metal serving bowls with filigreed handles, silver-edged bone china, and showy metal knives, forks, and spoons. “No matter how casual a place is in Hyderabad,” owner and chef Mohammad Tarique Khan tells me, “We prefer to eat in a formal and dignified manner, hence our plates and utensils.”
Khan grew up in Odisha, India, but the other chef and owner, Jayesh Naik, hails from Mumbai. Together with two other cooks, they turn out all the dishes on the restaurant’s expansive menu, which also includes regional favorites from northern and southern India.
The menu’s most important dish is probably goat dum biryani ($17.99). Bone-in, marvelous chunks of goat are tossed with saffron-laced rice and sealed in a pan as they are slow-cooked — it’s what “dum,” which is short for dumpukht, means — lending the rice maximum flavor. When the platter arrives and you don’t see much meat, note that it’s often concealed under rice. One serving is easily enough for two or more. Another version called goat fry biryani differs by having the goat mixed in at the last minute.
If you’re not a fan of goat, gongura chicken biryani, with fragrant leaves of the gongura plant (a type of hibiscus), lends a slightly sour and botanical flavor to the biryani. Additional biryanis incorporate shrimp, eggs, lamb, paneer, and various vegetables — even a bright orange one that features Andhra mango pickles called avakaya.
If the many biryanis were the extent of Zaiqa’s menu, it would be a formidable dining destination, but with so many cooks, they’re more ambitious.
Don’t ignore the soups and apps. The soups feature a tomato pepper shorba with a thin and strikingly orange broth laced with chiles, a perfect light summer potage. Among apps, goat sukha ($17.99) stews in a thick onion sauce, a style from Mangalore, to the west of Hyderabad.
Better yet is chicken vepudu, a street food from Andhra Pradesh, placing poultry tidbits in a mellow cream sauce rife with astringent southern herbs like curry leaf. Hyderabad itself is responsible for Apollo fish ($13.99), red swatches thickly coated with masala spices and chile paste in a dish one diner compared to Buffalo chicken wings.
Among dishes that are the equivalent of shareable main courses, there’s Malabar shrimp ($16) from the southwestern coast, in which burly shrimp get zapped with chiles and tamarind for a puckering spiciness. If you want spicy, Chettinad chicken is another good choice.
These are all tangential to ordering biryanis — and the one featuring boiled eggs ($14.99) has turned out to be one of my favorites. Like all of the biryanis at Zaiqa, it comes with a boat of yogurt raita shot with cucumbers. With the egg, note that we are in brunch territory here, with a pair of potato samosas making the perfect appetizer.