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Eat This, Riverside: Haleem and Halwa from the Iftar Buffet at Mirchi Restaurant

Whether or not you’re fasting for Ramadan, there’s a lot to enjoy at the nightly Iftar break-fast buffet at Mirchi Restaurant. Seth explores the celebratory offerings at this home-style Halal restaurant near UCR in this week's column.

Mirchi Restaurant at 1385 West Blaine Street.

It’s Ramadan! This holy month of the Muslim calendar is known mostly for the daily fast that observant Muslims perform, refraining from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex between sunrise and sundown. However, if I were assigned to do a public relations campaign for Ramadan, I might focus less on the daylight deprivations and more instead on Iftar, the celebratory break-fast that happens each evening as the sun’s disc dips below the horizon.

I was excited to learn that Mirchi, a Pakistani restaurant at Blaine and Iowa, sets out an Iftar buffet Tuesdays through Sundays during Ramadan, starting at sundown each day. When I visited this week, it was a quiet night, but Farrukh Iqbal, who manages this family-owned spot, showed me video of more lively evenings, with happy families crowded into the tiny restaurant after services at the Islamic Center of Riverside, which is around the corner on Linden.

The buffet consists of a rotating array of dishes, which change regularly. On my visit this week, the buffet highlights were chana masala, tender chickpeas served in a fiery jalapeno tomato ginger sauce, and haleem, an earthy beef and lentil stew with a thick gingery gravy and a slick of buttery ghee across the top.

Also available (and also delicious):

  • aloo gosht, goat and potatoes braised into tender submission 
  • chicken biryani: cardamom and peppercorn-studded rice pilaf with stewed chicken backs and other bony parts, great with a drizzle of cilantro chutney
  • tandoor-baked chicken tikka, tinted red with Kashmiri chili powder  

Mirchi offers traditional break-fast snacks as an appetizer: dates, chana chaat (more spiced chickpeas) and pakora, deep-fried onion and jalapeno fritters in a crackling crust of chickpea flour.

For dessert, bright orange halwa, a gorgeous smooth semolina pudding flecked with slivered almonds and cardamom pods, barely sweetened with sugar and honey - a warm and satisfying end to a rich meal.

Halwa (dessert pudding).

Even though it’s Ramadan, Mirchi is open for lunch and dinner before sunset, though you may find yourself eating alone in the restaurant, and if you’re like me, you may suffer from pangs of guilt for making the kitchen staff work while they fast. I allowed myself to be distracted from my guilt by focusing on devouring two orders of fresh-fried samosas - available stuffed with spicy potato & peas or ground meat. Mirchi’s samosas are diminutive, with thin, crunchy layers of phyllo dough wrapped around just the right amount of filling - they’re irresistibly light and crispy.

If you arrive for the buffet a few minutes early, take a moment to chat with Farrukh, who regaled me this week with stories of his family’s other business endeavors. Aside from Mirchi, they also own a Rally’s and Pollo Loco franchise (in Huntington Beach and Anaheim, respectively). He says that Mirchi is more of a fun project for his Mom, who gets a kick out of offering authentic Pakistani food that makes few concessions to non-Pakistani palates. “This food is more of a real taste of home-style Pakistani food - you won’t find many places like ours: many do more American/Indian fusion,” he says. I, for one, appreciate their uncompromising approach.

Farrukh showing off the buffet.

If you’re interested in attending the Iftar buffet, you’ve got a couple of weeks of Ramadan left - the month (and the fasting and the nightly buffet) lasts through April 9. If you don’t make it for Iftar, you can check out their regular brunch buffet on Sundays from 12-5 p.m. or order exactly what you like a la carte at other times that they’re open. They also offer lunch thali specials, the South Asian version of “meat ‘n’ three” - a metal compartmented tray of a couple of stews, a piece of chicken, some bread or rice, and salad and dessert. 

Mirchi is an extremely informal restaurant with few of the amenities that some might consider important while dining out. There is no printed menu - when ordering a la carte, you choose from a wall of photos behind the register. Prices are not posted anywhere (though you can find them on their online menu). The decor is minimal. The plates (at the buffet at least) are flimsy styrofoam and the utensils are plastic. But the food? The food is so good that I’m happy to overlook any lack of polish.

Mirchi is at 1385 West Blaine St, in the shopping center behind Duke’s Bar & Grill - enter the parking lot from Blaine between Iowa and the highway, right next to the Jack in the Box. They are open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner for dine-in or carry-out and are available for delivery through Doordash et al. and catering. Get a preview of the Iftar menu on their Instagram stories or give them a call to place a carry-out or catering order at (951) 557-1638.