As promised, I searched around town this week to see if I could find any restaurants that had specials for iftar - the sunset meal during Ramadan when Muslims break their fast.
There was of course Mughals, a Pakistani institution on Jimmy Carter Blvd that's been known for years throughout the South Asian community for its legendary iftar buffets. And I saw that Chai Pani Decatur had a "Break your fast at home with Chai Pani" box that includes some menu favorites like kale pakoras. Except it was $30 a box, and the box serves one person. Probably delicious, but expensive to the point of exclusionary.
So I called up a bunch of restaurants to see what else was out there including an Indonesian restaurant, two Bangladeshi restaurants, and several Middle Eastern restaurants. I got either a voicemail or no news of any specials - just a curt response - “regular menu only."
When I called Bismillah Cafe (which translates to "In the name of Allah" Cafe) on Buford Highway, I was on the verge of giving up. We grew up just eating dates and pakoras at home or a friend’s place for iftar, or breaking fast at the mosque. Was "iftar box" actually a Western concept that my Instagram saturated brain had somehow absorbed? I started having doubts about the whole thing.
A man answered the phone and said they had an iftar box. He passed the phone to someone else who told me their $10 box had three types of pakoras, channa, biryani, shammi kabob, jalebi, and dates.
We (my husband and our two kids) met my parents there for iftar the next day. As we drove up, my 7 year old son Azi pointed to a giant yellow sign that said "Tortas Locas." "Is that where we're going?" he said excitedly.
"Nope," my husband said, "but it's right next to it.”
We parked directly in front of the cafe’s outdoor seating - red and black booths lined along the outside of the small building which houses both the cafe and a halal meat and grocery store. There were flyers for immigration lawyers, a global money transfer service, and one in Hindi with a picture of a South Asian military general hanging on the building besides the tables. It’s mostly a takeout joint, but we decided to take a seat. It was warm outside and our kids were getting a thrill out of watching planes fly so close overhead to land at nearby Dekalb-Peachtree Airport.
Within minutes of arriving, we were chatting with Bismillah’s owner and head chef, Nowshed Hossain.
Nowshed moved to Georgia from Bangladesh in 2005, and two years later, opened Bismillah Cafe. The cafe offers a variety of items (from shawarma to hot wings to french fries), catering to a very mixed customer base - “20 percent Bangladeshi, rest is mixed - African, Mexican, Asian,” he said. But Bismillah’s specialty is Bangladeshi food, which Nowshed learned to cook from his mother. I asked him what made it different from Indian and Pakistani cuisine. “Same spices, different cooking style,” he told me. “We use regular spices from back home. Loose spices, not the pack." By “pack” he likely meant Shan Masala - a popular brand of premixed boxed spices - and a welcome shortcut for many South Asian cooks.
We ordered one iftar box, a mixed biryani, and the rohu fish curry. When my dad asked for some plates, a man in the kitchen came out with a takeout box he had broken in half and handed them to us.
The goat biryani in the iftar box was moist and flavored with green and black cardamom, and to my surprise, wasn’t spicy. The rohu fish curry had a rich gingery taste and rivaled a shrimp curry I’d eaten the week before at a much more expensive Indian restaurant. And the chutney was different from the chutneys I’m used to - it was sweet and creamy. I agreed with many of the Google reviewers - the food had the feeling of a roadside dhaba or an NYC food truck. But I think, was better.
If you’ve been fasting all day, the iftar box will definitely fill you up in minutes. But if you’re vegetarian or have more plant based preferences, you’d be hard pressed to find a vegetable. The closest we got to a vegetable was the channa (chickpeas) and whatever was making the chutney green (probably cilantro.)
With such generous portions, I was baffled by how low the prices were. I asked Nowshed how the rise in food prices had been impacting his business. “I just raised up prices one dollar. Rice used to be 10 dollars, $10.99, $11.99. Now it's 20 dollars. Everything is very high.” Still, he's kept the prices dramatically lower than the competition. "We are making less profit, but we can survive. It's better if you make less profit, but sell more."
Nowshed told me that mostly bachelors come to Bismillah Cafe, because there’s limited seating for families. This is partly what has motivated him to expand - he plans to open a restaurant in Doraville, and another one right next door to the current location in a few months.
After over an hour hanging out at our booth, we gathered our empty takeout containers and threw them in the trash. Nowshed stood at the front, looking out into the parking lot, facing Buford Highway.
"Do you like Atlanta?"I asked.
"I love Atlanta," he said. "It's like Bangladesh."
He must have noticed my befuddled expression and added, "the weather is just like Bangladesh. Not too much rainy or cloudy. Warm."