Given the fact that Atif Khan has had, as he puts it, at least "eight years' experience in chicken," it should not be a total surprise that he has given Philadelphia a new object of deep-fried poultry obsession: chicken Chargha.
Then again, Wah-Gi-Wah, the Pakistani kabob shop he opened 10 months ago at 45th and Chestnut Streets, is a world away from the Crown Fried Chicken store in Chester he owned for five years while studying mechanical engineering at Drexel University (and subsequently, Temple University). If his experience with that ubiquitous inner-city chain was the epitome of an immigrant entrepreneur's trading in low-rent American street food, Khan's exotically spiced menu at Wah-Gi-Wah, and in particular its inspired rendition of that chicken Chargha, offers a taste of pure Lahori soul.
Served as an entire bird on the bone that's butterflied wide open, the Chargha's flesh is deeply scored and crisped beneath a vivid orange crust that's more spice rub than batter, worked into a penetrating marinade of yogurt and lime that reaches every nook and cranny. The scoring speeds cooking and makes for handy eating, too. I easily tugged away plumes of juicy meat and let the flavors snap my eyes open as the aroma of citrus swirled into currents of ginger, cumin, and garam masala curry, with a lingering hum of chile spice. At only $12, this is not just one of the best flavor bargains around. It's one of the best fried chickens, period, in a town that has been riffing on the genre quite nicely over the last few years, from the crispy thighs at Meme to the sous-vide buttermilk beauties at Adsum to the intriguingly sweet and spicy Korean fried chicken ("K.F.C.") at Meritage. Khan's Pakistani-style Chargha adds another worthy international ambassador to that pantheon.
"Wah-Gi-Wah!" indeed, which, as the Southeast Asian cabbies and students who gather here surely know, means "spectacular" in Punjabi.
They aren't talking about the decor. True, it is spotless and new compared to its somewhat grungy competition down the street, Kabobeesh, which for years had been serving the city's only genuine Pakistani menu from a vintage diner car. But in the larger scheme of things, Wah-Gi-Wah is still a modest no-frills space, an airy corner room with exposed brick walls, the obligatory steam-table counter of curried daily specials, and booths with tall backs that wobble in the glow of a flat-screen TV broadcasting cricket matches, variety shows, and the latest news reports of civilian casualties from American drone strikes.
"They're doing it all wrong," one barrel-bellied cabbie told me. "If [the Americans] really want terrorists, they should be relying on the locals. Lots of us Pakistanis in America would help."
As a touchstone center for one growing local ethnic community, Wah-Gi-Wah has become a fascinating new crossroads for Paki expats to gather. But the magnetic force that draws me here is the firework flavors rather than the combustion politics. And Wah-Gi-Wah is a new highlight in the growing halal-ization of the Spruce Hill neighborhood around 45th Street, which has cultivated a number of eateries worth paying attention to, from the standby Middle Eastern sandwiches of Saad's and the Ethiopian Kaffa Crossing, to the fantastic new baklava palace of Manakeesh.
For pure flavor volume, Wah-Gi-Wah is hard to beat, with Khan's chef (and uncle) Abdul Saboor ably manning the tandoor and char-grill. Pakistani food bears strong similarities to Indian cooking, so much so that my Indian guest literally exclaimed "unbelievable!" when he took a bite of the incredibly juicy, heat-singed boneless chicken tikka kabob: "I'm remembering my childhood," he said.
Pakistani cuisine, though, has some different spicing as well as a deliberately oilier shine - not necessarily a bad thing if you're into swaggering flavors. Saboor isn't shy about using the pungent spice of fresh red or green chiles to spark such standard dishes as the vegetarian samosas or the mashed potato cakes called allo tikki. His yellow daal is a bit less soupy than its Indian counterpart, all the better to taste the texture of split yellow lentils and snappy mung beans. The choley, a Lahori take on channa masala, presents tender chickpeas both whole and mashed into an almost creamy gravy that exudes exotic flavors of cumin, clove, and mustard seed. Another vegetarian dish brought fritters of pakora chickpea flour that turned to dumpling-esque clouds in a richly curried yogurt cream.
Karahi curries, sort of fresh stir-fries (as opposed to slow-stewed curries), are another typical Pakistani flavor, and Saboor's chicken variation is fantastic, the tender meat shimmering with ginger, herbaceous cilantro, and heat. By comparison, I was seriously disappointed with the traditional goat variation, which was mostly bone and gristle, and exceptionally chewy. A curried goat dish was far more satisfying. But after gnawing through the flavorful but also slightly springy lamb chops, it was clear this kitchen's talents largely reside with chicken.
Aside from the fried Chargha, there was a flavorful tandoori-roasted bird (though the boneless tikka, I think, was slightly preferable), and a chicken kabob that was spectacular. It looked dry. But the meat was ground coarsely enough that I could still taste the flavor of the fresh meat, and it unfurled a surprisingly complex trail of flavors, with a hot burst of red chile heat making way for waves of coriander, mint, and even notes of coconut and almond.
One exception to the slight disappointments with red meat came in an unexpected place: the naan. Wah-Gi-Wah makes an exceptional variety of fresh naan flatbreads baked on the clay walls of the tandoor, their crisp bottoms contrasting with the buttery softness of puffy, ghee-shined tops. Add a dusting of sesame for extra roastiness. But the ringer here was the "keema" naan, whose flaky inner layers are stuffed with a mince of oniony beef ringing with cilantro and fresh green chiles. (A chicken version is also available.)
With the glow of spice lingering from the savory meal, the promising balm of dessert is a welcome thought. Wah-Gi-Wah makes a fine enough rice pudding for this, the basmati cooked for hours in sweet milk infused with cardamom, almonds, and saffron. Your best bet, though, is to walk a block south to Walnut, where Manakeesh, a sparkling new Lebanese bakery in a former bank, offers seemingly endless variations on baklava, powdered-sugar shortbread cookies, and honey-soaked semolina cakes to be washed down with pots of mint tea and demitasses of thick Middle Eastern coffee.
From fiery Pakistani chicken Chargha to the sweet charms of Lebanese pastry - the new star flavors in this growing neighborhood pocket of halal delights - a night out in Spruce Hill is tastier and more worthy of a visit than ever.
Contact Craig LaBan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-2682.