Rediscovering a Karachi classic — Café Clifton
With Covid somewhat relaxing its iron grip, Karachiites heaved a sigh of relief and got back to their favourite activity: eating out.
After having been granted permission to pull up their shutters, restaurants have come back to life, but the hitch is that it is only for outdoor dining. This entails grappling with the heat and humidity as you eat outdoors with fans to cool you down.
But there is one café in Karachi which has been specialising in outdoor dining for decades, and for whom these drawbacks do not apply. Come summer or winter, Café Clifton (CC) does roaring business, that too without any fans, making do with the sea breeze. In fact, it’s no-frills nature is part of its romance.
After a backbreaking day of work, I decided to let my taste buds come back to life. Naturally, I headed towards CC to get my fill of the succulent protein-rich tikkas and chomp on their juicy kebabs and rolls.
As our car parked adjacent to a table of women sitting out in the open on plastic chairs, their smiles turned to frowns. But they relaxed when they saw that there were women in our car. Women owning public spaces is a rare sight and, hence, is all the more welcome.
I ask for the menu, but am told it has gone for an overhaul because prices are being hiked up. When I ask why, CC manager Zahid Shareef says simply, “What do you expect? Everything has become so expensive. Look at the price of chickens! What can we do?” He goes on to complain that delivery service charges are also driving up prices.
Café Clifton in Karachi offers scrumptious barbeque fare without frills, a variety of tea and lots of sea breeze
Looking at the crowd thronging the simple plastic tables and chairs, I ask: “Hasn’t your business been affected by Covid?”
“Nothing affects our business! Our customers just do not want to leave us.”
Despite the recent opening of some other cafes in the vicinity, CC keeps on drawing maximum customers. When I asked for the CC waiter after pulling up, the waiter from another nearby café begged me to try their kebabs instead. Next time, I replied, rolling up the car window at his disappointed face.
Part of the dining experience here is having tikka and kebabs in your car, which may sound strange to people from other cities. But who in Karachi has not balanced plates of steaming barbecue in the comfort of their car? If it is boiling hot, you eat in the chilled comfort of your car’s AC and, if it’s winter, you just roll down the windows. Of course, balancing plates of tikka, kebab, naan, paratha as well as soft drinks, tissues and sauces is by no means an easy task, but it seems to come naturally to us.
Not for CC, the niceties of other barbecue outlets that give you trays and napkins. The tissues are of the cheapest variety and the plates are plastic. Pandering to niceties has never been CC’s style.
In terms of food, the chicken tikka is a staple and you cannot go to CC and not have it. The tikka is supremely satisfying as it glides down your throat; but there have been times when the tikka has been overdone. One needs to specify to the waiter exactly how you would like it. For the palate that prefers the less spicy tikka, one suspects that CC’s solution to this quandary (like many other tikka joints) is to wash the seasoning off before grilling and serving it.
The chicken boti is succulent and soft but is a trifle spicy, which tends to overwhelm the flavour of the chicken. The beef kebabs and beef Bihari boti, on the other hand, are scrumptious and what enhances the taste is that they are not dry and melt slowly in the mouth.
What should round off these dishes is piping hot naan, but this is where CC falters. The naans are rubbery even when they are hot, but as they cool they start resembling car tyres. As a veteran CC diner, whose suggestion to improve the quality of naans has been met by a resigned shrug, my tip is to get your naan instead from the tandoor round the corner, where delicious naans are trotted out straight from the oven. Even if you take them home and eat later at night or a day later, all you need to do to revive them is to heat them up.
The parathas at CC are crisp, except that they are a little on the oily side. But then, as Shareef would say, what’s a paratha without oil?
To wash this all off, I order tea, scanning the varieties on offer: doodh patti, kahwa, Kashmiri chai and elaichi chai. I am delighted to see that my doodh patti is frothy and hits the right spot; a satisfied sigh escapes me.
CC is frequented by people from all sections of society. The clientele includes boys with bulging biceps in T-shirts and shorts, bearded men with families in tow, blue collar workers on bikes and in vans, women in abayas and dupattas, and girls in jeans, as well as enthusiastic Pakistani expatriates who fly in and head straight towards the café to get their dose of the desi delights that they have been deprived of for so long.
Café Clifton has been thriving since the mid-80s, and be warned that you will be doing it an injustice if you do not go with an empty stomach because, once you are there, your gastronomic juices kick into action and you will want to try more and more of their simple but mouth-watering dishes.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, June 20th, 2021