Since emigrating from India in the late ’80s, the Momin family of Dallas, Georgia, has had a rather bumpy ride in the restaurant world. Years before son Farhan created the famous Nihari shredded lamb sandwich that landed him a spot on “MasterChef” Season 9 in 2018, there were some rough times for the 27-year-old Atlanta dentist, his mom, dad and two siblings.
Farhan, who would go on to attend Emory University on full scholarship and earn his DMD in Chicago, remembers the Wednesday his family suddenly moved from their five-bedroom home in Gwinnett to Rome, Georgia, to operate “an Indian restaurant inside a roach motel.” Before that, his parents had owned a Dairy Queen in a Savannah mall, followed by another Dairy Queen in Athens. None of it worked out.
But since he was 6, Farhan — also known as Chef Farmo or Dr. Momin, depending on which white coat he happens to be wearing — has cooked, mingling the spicy South Asian cuisine his parents brought from Ahmedabad with the fast-food flavors he learned to love as an American-born kid. Though he ultimately chose dentistry over culinary school, his passion for food has never wavered. After catching the eye of “MasterChef” producers, participating in the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Brown in the South series, and hosting pop-ups from Chicago to Nashville, Chef Farmo and fam are back in the game at the new Atlanta Halal Meat & Food in Suwanee.
At the sparsely decorated room, which doubles as a meat store and mostly takeout restaurant with a handful of tables, the stars have indubitably aligned for the Momins. On glorious display are father Ahmed’s expertise at halal butchery; mother Eliza’s North Indian homestyle cooking; and Farhan’s genius touch for pop-ups, social media marketing and Desi-meets-Dairy Queen concoctions.
It’s almost impossible not to swoon over his famous Karee Fried Chicken Sandwich, a killer-diller stack of two big, perfectly fried tenders tucked in a squishy white bun with pickled jalapenos and a couple of secret sauces. What makes Farmo’s KFC so magical I can’t quite say. The marinade is based on a Bhori curry (karee) that Gujarati Muslims often stew with goat or chicken and eat with rice. The sauces — one a green mayo made with roasted curry leaves and jalapeno; the other sweet, brown and redolent of apples and tamarind — marry India and America’s mutual love affair with condiments. Altogether, this memorable creation becomes a worthy heir to a local chicken-sandwich hierarchy that already boasts the iconic Chick-fil-A and Asha Gomez’s much-celebrated Kerala fried chicken, inspired by the cuisine of her native state in the south of India. Y’all need to try this one.
The Nihari Sandwich — which Farhan developed in his Emory dorm room for the family’s Tava Indian Bistro in Decatur — isn’t quite as tasty to me, but it is also very good. Here, a traditional Nihari lamb stew is rendered a bit drier, the meat shredded and piled on a bun, and dressed with Eliza’s cooling cilantro-jalapeno-chutney, plus cilantro, onions, pickled jalapenos, and julienned ginger. Think of it as New Orleans debris with an Indian twist. It’s that Nihari jus that makes it so moist, delectable and wonderfully drippy.
I like the Nihari lamb on the crinkle-cut Farmo Fries, full-meal baskets of loaded spuds that you can also get topped with chicken tikka or paneer. The gloriousness of those umami-stoked fries — which nod to chili fries and totchos — lies in the agglomeration of the family’s holy trinity of sauces: the chutney, the tamarind, the spicy green mayo.
Now let me tell you about the restaurant’s more traditional offerings.
Chicken 65: good, though a tad dry and slightly over-fried on the day I tried it. Goat biryani: absolutely sensational, beautiful, aromatic yellow basmati with the tenderest morsels of meat tucked in. Masala chops: deeply flavorful, tender at the center, charred at the edges and along the bone. (These petite, A+ chops speak to the freshness and quality of the meat, sourced locally and cooked just a day or so after slaughter.) The lamb seekh kebab, fat sticks of flame-kissed minced meat, took me back to the kebab houses of Old Delhi, and are surely among the finest examples in this region.
For those who want to delve deeper into the cuisine, there are a couple of dishes that were new to me, and utterly sublime. That would be the haleem, an ancient comfort bowl of cracked-wheat (bulgur) porridge, swirled with chopped chicken (rather than the more common beef or goat) and topped with all the fixin’s (matchsticks of fresh ginger, chopped cilantro, fried onions, lime wedges). Mix it all together, spoon it down like grits, feel the warmth and love with which it was prepared by the Momins.
The other showstopper among the curries, perfect for supping with naan, is the goat paya — trotters in a spicy, collagen-enriched broth with chana dal (split lentils). I figured I’d appreciate the dish; I ended up going goat-wild for it.
It’s worth noting that portions are generous and with the exception of a whole tandoori chicken, the lamb shank Nihari and the lamb kebabs, nothing on the menu is over $10. The dishes are cooked to order. They come out quickly, and unless you make it clear that you are dining in, the food will be wrapped, bagged and ready to go.
In a city with a multitude of immigrant success stories, the Momins’ saga is particularly sweet. Farhan — who excelled in the culinary program at North Paulding High, where he persuaded his teacher to order a molecular gastronomy kit from Amazon so he would work through his El Bulli phase — is a formidable talent who straddles two cultures (and two professions) with exceptional grace. His cooking is a one-of-a-kind, only-in-America combo of the old and new: Gujarati home cooking served side by side with some bodacious and delicious modern riffs that feel born of an obsession with fast food and cultural mashups. Behold: the first generation of South Asian American bun sandwiches. (You can keep the wraps.)
Lucky for us, the Momins — who eventually found their niche in the halal meat world, then used that expertise to open restaurants, including the well-reviewed Tava, which they sold last year — are having a much deserved, long overdue moment.
ATLANTA HALAL MEAT & FOOD
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Food: Terrific Indian classics (curries, biryanis, grilled meats and chicken) with some marvelous, Indian American sandwiches and french-fry creations by a chef who is also a full-time dentist
Service: A walk-up counter with friendly cashiers who are happy to explain the cuisine and offer suggestions to the uninitiated
Setting: In a new Suwanee shopping center anchored by a Patel Brothers grocery store
Best dishes: Lamb seekh kebabs. Masala chops. Farmo Fries with Nihari. Karee Fried Chicken Sandwich. Nihari sandwich. Haleem. Goat paya. Goat biryani. Naan.
Vegetarian selections: Vegetable samosa. Fries. Farmo Fries with paneer. Paneer katakat. Chili paneer. Kadhai paneer. Chole. Roti. Roti paratha. Naan.
Price range: $
Credit cards: All major credit cards accepted
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
Parking: Abundant free parking in lot
MARTA station: No
Reservations: No, but may call ahead for parties of six or more
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Low
Address, phone: 3230 Caliber St., Suwanee. 678-456-8212
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