I'm told that psychologists test EQ in small children with a simple test: They offer the child a Hershey's Kiss, then tell him that if he waits five minutes, he can have two instead. By this measure, my EQ in matters such as finances, or other trappings of "adulting," are right about where they should be. But if that Hershey's Kiss were Uyghur food, I would be wearing a dunce cap.
I spied month-old Tarim Central Asian Grill in the Westchase portion of Westheimer on Thursday (the name comes from the basin that comprises the southern half of Xinjiang, the final resting place of a slew of caucasoid mummies that have been one of my great obsessions for the better part of my life) and tried to hold out to enjoy it with friends away for Thanksgiving weekend. But by Sunday, my gustatory chastity had worn down to nothing. But it was OK that I came in alone. I left with a newly minted Uyghur family.
The head of the clan is chipper, well-spoken Yakeya Mohamad. He was general manager at Uyghur Bistro, Houston's first Uyghur restaurant, for its first year-and-a-half of life. Tarim is now the third Uyghur restaurant in the city, but the first not in Chinatown. Mohamad estimates that there are only about 20 families in greater Houston who come from China's Muslim northwestern-most province. That means that he can't rely on fellow natives to keep the restaurant afloat. Chinese diners are mostly versed in the lamb-heavy cuisine that is gifted liberally with spices and recipes from across the ancient Silk Road: Flavors meld from combinations of ingredients familiar from Iran to India to China, with hints of Russian for good measure. But Mohamad hopes to appeal to Houston's large Muslim community with his halal food, and to regular old fans of unique, highly flavorful food.
The menu when I visited was still small and verbose, but in days, Mohamad plans to debut a new one with more options and lots of pictures to help newbies visualize what they'll be eating. I started with yogurt chicken soup, a creamy potage dotted with torn bits of meat, rice and just enough chile to give it a welcome kick. Most of the recipes at Tarim are Mohamad's mother's and she does all the baking herself. The sweet, fluffy bread served with the soup reminded me of a more buoyant version of my own mother's challah.
It's the side with kebabs, too. Though Uyghurs' primary protein is lamb, Tarim caters to the neighborhood with other options. He and his mother conceived recipes for a bright, tangy ground beef skewer and earthy, cumin-soaked chicken one to go along with the typical sesame-and-chile-flecked lamb. The last of these is the stand-out, though. The meat is so preternaturally tender, I wouldn't hesitate to eat it after dental surgery. It's even better with a side of plov, the slow-cooked rice dish flecked with carrots and onions. Tarim sells full-sized plates of the Central Asian specialty with a lamb shank, chicken, or in Uzbek style, sliced lamb, as well as with a shrimp version created for Americans. Other concessions include the option of trying dapanji (big plate chicken) or laghman (noodles with lamb and veggies) with gluten-free rice noodles instead of typical ropy hand-pulled wheat ones.
Another plus of having your mom behind the counter: Freshly baked desserts. Though I'm well-versed in Uyghur cuisine for an American, I had never had either of the sweets Mohamad recommended I tried. The first, bakali, reminded me of the spice cake I used to eat during visits to a colonial saltbox house in my hometown. Mohamad, however, said most Americans likened it to banana bread. In fact, the level of sweetness is similar, as is the chewy, walnut-flecked texture.
There was also katkat, a nut cake that looks a bit like baklava, but is girded by layers of pastry more like pie dough than phyllo. It's also refreshingly low on sugar, leaving the buttery walnuts to speak for themselves. With a glass of hot tea, it was a transporting end to the meal. By then, Mohamad's father, wife and small children had streamed into the restaurant, too. And in a restaurant that I'd driven to alone, I was part of an especially warm family gathering.