Sometimes clichés work simply because they turn out to be true. Like, for example, it’s a small world. Or the one about food being an international language.
There’s a new restaurant in Maryville that proves the point in a surprising way. Masala IndoPak Grill is a place tucked away below the Bargain Hunt that formerly was a grocery store. Masala is in a small storefront, barely visible at 1811 W. Broadway Ave. just off the highway. It used to be a donut shop. A pizza delivery place before that.
Abbas Ali Sheikh is the proprietor now and has been conducting business for a little over a month. He realizes visibility is a problem, being along a major highway but located downhill. He acknowledges patience is needed when relying on word-of-mouth recognition for his new place, but confident his food will make a success of Masala.
“It’s slow. Slow moving, you know,” Sheikh says. But he’s equipped for it. Masala has no employees, which keeps expenses down. He minimized the investment by building the restaurant’s counters by hand.
“I did it myself. I’m a small businessman, but it’s okay. Lord gives me food, it’s okay.”
His place is starting to get some social media buzz, but during a weekday midafternoon a reporter looking for a late lunch was the only customer.
“I’m on the back side. If I was on the main road it’s no problem. But still, people find out and they come,” Sheikh says.
Almost on cue, a couple other customers enter. The McNulty brothers, originally of Seymour, now of Maryville and South Knoxville, know something about the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent. Since they were kids they ate at places such as Sitar and Bombay Palace in Knoxville.
They select a variety from the menu, which has photos posted on the wall to help guests not so familiar with the dishes. They choose Masala Chicken, Butter Chicken, Chicken Tikka, Samosa Chat along with sides of rice and naan.
They were tempted to indulgence by the prices, which turned out to have been a bit of an issue with other local restaurants of the genre. While preparing the dishes — Sheikh does all the cooking and serving — he picks up on the conversation about the Knoxville restaurants.
“I know ’em,” Sheikh says, not just the restaurants but the people who run them. “My prices aren’t high,” he adds. Apparently that had been a point of discussion with his fellow restaurateurs.
“What? They gave you hell?” a McNulty asks.
“They asked me, why do you keep these prices?”
The discussion turns from price to food.
“This first dish is fantastic. So good,” a brother says, referring to the bowl of Samosa Chat.
“Everything here, I made it,” Sheikh says.
“Hey, I try to make Indian food. I’m decent, but you’re much better,” a McNulty responds. “How long you been cooking?”
The surprise is that this IndoPak Grill is Sheikh’s first restaurant. He learned by watching his mother cook, and has cooked at home all his life.
This native of Pakistan didn’t come to America to start a restaurant. He left Pakistan with his wife to take a job as a financial manager in Bangkok, Thailand, where he stayed 15 years.
When he migrated to the U.S., it was to South Carolina where he had a gas station. He stayed there one year before coming to Tennessee, where he opened another gas station on Oak Ridge Highway. Ran it for 19 years. Finally got tired of earning 2- to 3-cents on a gallon of gas while the big profits went the big oil companies.
Meanwhile he lived in Blount County. If you want to get Sheikh really talking, ask him about his children. Speaking of small worlds, it turns out one daughter cashed pay checks from The Daily Times. Raiha Abbas was the William Blount High School correspondent for the paper. She graduated as valedictorian of her class and is attending Rice University on a full-scholarship and expects to graduate in just two years time.
Her sister Manal Abbas just graduated from Maryville College and is in the process of picking a grad school where she can earn her Ph.D. in chemistry.
Their brother, Mustafa Abbas, is a ninth-grader at William Blount. Don’t be surprised if Sheikh has more stories to tell customers.
For a restaurant with no employees and three customers, the surprising connections keep on coming.
“The Daily Times? ‘You buddies with ole Wildsmith?” Ryan McNulty asks.
Turns out Ryan McNulty plays in a band, but didn’t realize the intrepid former entertainment editor for The Daily Times is working full time on staff at Cornerstone of Recovery. He’s writing part-time for the newspaper.
“Jeez, I didn’t even realize that. I’ve got a band around town and he’s always running for us and so I’ve become buddies with him. I did an interview with him two months ago. Is that all he does, he just works all the time?” McNulty asks. Take that as a rhetorical question. “That dude just keeps going. He’s a wild man.”
No argument there.
The door opens and four new customers arrive. No telling what unexpected connections they bring.
A question of Sheikh brings an answer might be considered another cliché. What’s with the name IndoPak? It doesn’t require many takes on the news to know that while India and Pakistan have some overlapping food preferences, their governments aren’t exactly sidekicks in the kitchen of nations. Sheikh’s answer can answer serve for many questions.
“I know, that’s a politics game. Actually, people don’t want to fight. Just the politicians.”