American, South Asian fare mix well at Dublin’s Mirchi Cafe
By Lou Fancher
Food in the life of Mirchi Cafe owner and chef Lisa Ahmad is full-spectrum.
There are American classics from a childhood in San Leandro, Hayward and Fremont: burgers, fried chicken, peaches with cottage cheese or her mother’s “silly treats,” like biscuits from a can, fried and dusted with sugar to become scrumptious doughnuts. Add to that handmade ravioli and spaghetti and meatballs she learned to cook while working at Lucia’s, the family’s now-closed East Bay Italian restaurant — or her grandmother’s pastina soup, star-shaped pasta in chicken broth. Believably, her great-grandmother was a baker.
“I feel like the DNA of cooking was in me,” says Ahmad, 43, who earned a degree from the California Culinary Academy of San Francisco and perfected her baking skills while an intern at San Francisco’s La Patisserie Française.
Of course, the story of how an American/Italian/French chef came to open the Pakistani, 100 percent halal Mirchi Cafe in Fremont in 2004 and in February 2017 in Dublin, is not yet complete. There are the two years Ahmad took to establish a catering business; the narrative of twice-meeting her husband, Khursheed Ahmad, their five children ages 4 to 22, falling in love with Pakistani cuisine and culture; dabbling with Thai and Asian stir-fry; and battling mysterious food sensitivities that flared following one of her pregnancies. Ahmad’s culinary experience is a grand opera, multifaceted and dramatic.
Which goes a long way to explain Mirchi Café’s eclectic menu that includes, among other dishes, Aloo Tikki (spicy potato patties), “Mirchi Original” french fries, Americano and Punjabi Chicken burgers, “Meat Me Up” pizzas, vegetarian and meat Desi Style Stir Fry, a specialty drink menu — Mirchi serves no alcohol — and desserts from tiramisu to waffle sundaes to Falooda, an Indian subcontinent treat made with syrups, wheat-starch, rice noodles and milk.
Remarkably, Ahmad’s philosophies about cooking and dining are simple. “Food is comfort,” she says. Except when it is the enemy. “Unfortunately, I developed food allergies to dairy, egg white, nuts and gluten. As a chef, I had to re-examine my identity and accept food as nourishment but know that certain things, I can’t consume.”
Schooling, to learn about food properties and build skills, but more so to study the dynamics of running a family-owned business in a high-stakes industry, is essential.
“I started working at Lucia’s when I was 15. I learned negative lessons watching a family business that often came first. I’m careful about that now. Relationships are impacted. Family comes first.”
Positive lessons learned and reinforced at culinary school center on hard work ethics and a belief that customers are “always right, period, end of story.”
The joy of food looms large for Ahmad. She first met her husband at age 10, when he was their table waiter during a night out with her father at Lucia’s.
“Then while I was 15 and going to Hayward High, I moved into my own apartment — my parents supported my independence. I started working at Lucia’s. He had a crush on me and I on him, but he was older and grew up in a country where you respected women. He was humble and wanted to keep good standing with my family.”
Eventually, her father urged him to take her to the movies. At age 17, she chose to marry him. Several years later, when Lucia’s closed despite Ahmad selling her catering business to save it, she left the food industry.
“It was the strangest feeling ever,” she recalls.
Even so, family trips to Pakistan left her fascinated with the spicy foods, Muslim faith and the country’s rich, complex history. At a dinner party, she doodled a logo, dreamed of serving Italian spaghetti and Pakistani chicken shashlik and talked her family into opening Mirchi Cafe. The first five years in Fremont were difficult.
“It was myself and my sisters-in-law in the kitchen, with my nephew front-of-house. The local community didn’t trust our food yet because they weren’t familiar with it. I’m still in that mindset, even though it has flourished ever since the seventh year.”
Customers who came from the Tri-Valley begged Ahmad to open a second location.
“Dublin’s definitely a pilot for me, but it’s a challenge my husband and I both want to take on,” she says.
Already, customers’ favorites include madrisa fries, americano burgers, crispy chicken breast sandwiches — and the comforting chicken shashlik people say reminds them of family meals in Pakistan. Ahmad says it warms her heart to serve food that is a balm and a connector.
“I show the beauty and culture of Pakistan. In the moment you are eating, tasting their spices, food is a bridge to understanding.”