Cheap Eats: Bismillah Cafe
Breaking Bangladeshi at an under-the-radar Buford Highway eatery
The Bangladeshi food Bismillah Market and Cafe serves has been on my radar for several years, though I must admit that Bismillah's location on Buford Highway had never really registered in my mind. Maybe that's because it's so easy to zoom right by Bismillah, sandwiched between a used car lot and a former Ethiopian market across the street from Lee's Bakery. The small market's signage is clearly visible, but the cafe is unmarked. Nevertheless, I finally found my way in to Bismillah recently. The food I sampled was homey and well-spiced albeit, like the cafe's physical appearance, a little rough around the edges.
SMALL BUT MIGHTY: The cafe portion of Bismillah is tiny — a small counter with two stools, one booth, and one more small table tucked in the corner. There are a few more small tables outside facing the parking lot, but Bismillah seems to do plenty of take-out business. On a recent visit, two men were running the kitchen and counter. They greeted us with a smile as they rushed around the mini kitchen. Bismillah manages to turn out a large assortment of dishes from the small space. There are fresh samosas, a few soups, biryani rice dishes, chicken and lamb shawarma, salads and gyro-like sandwiches, and an array of curries. Oh, there are also hot wings, cheeseburgers, and even a fried chicken burger if you're so inclined. Styrofoam to-go containers are the standard means of delivery.
FLAVOR TOWN: We asked for recommendations at the counter on what to order and ended up with both meat and veggie samosas ($1 each), a beautiful chicken shawarma biryani ($8), an unnaturally red plate of chicken tikka masala ($8), and a rich Malay lamb curry ($9). The cook delivered the Styrofoam trays to our table. He also brought out a plate of not-quite-naan bread that seemed more like rounds of pita than the typical Indian offerings. All the dishes were expertly spiced, though never rising to the level of what you might call spicy. The two types of samosas had the requisite crunchy exteriors, appropriately soft interiors, and both benefited from a squirt of the pepper sauce on the table (no mint chutney or tamarind sauces were offered).
BIG AND BOLD: The biryani was the star of the show, with chunks of the lightly smoky chicken shawarma tossed with rice under a generous dose of raita-like yogurt sauce. Cool, crisp onion and tomato provided a nice contrast to the tender rice. The Malay lamb curry carried nuanced layers of cumin, coriander, and ginger in its gravy-like sauce, though the bone-in meat itself, while tender, had a bit too much gristle and fat. And that unnaturally red tikka masala? The splatter may look like the set of a slasher flick, but there's great flavor swimming in that red sea of sauce. That said, Bismillah is clearly not shy in the oil department, as pools of the stuff separated out of the sauce in short order. Refined cooking? Maybe not, but Bismillah delivers heavily satisfying Bangladeshi comfort food with aplomb.
ORDER AHEAD: You can call Bismillah and order ahead for take-out, and they also accept orders online. While you're waiting for your order to come up, you may as well peek in to the adjacent market. There you'll find all manner of specialties from the Indian subcontinent and swaths of Africa such as heavy rounds of Ethiopian injera bread, containers of finely ground peanut flour, hookah accessories, halal meat, and bags upon bags of dry spices. The owner said they'll soon be renovating to improve the cafe space and seating, so keep your eyes open for signs of progress as you cruise down Buford Highway.