When it comes to grabbing lunch Downtown, most diners are looking food that is quick, cheap and reasonably tasty. Venues that hit the mark in all three categories cultivate loyal customers and do brisk business.
Shah Jee's is one of those places.
Inconspicuously located in a tough-to-find food court at 770 N. Jefferson St., a location where other restaurant's have failed, Shah Jee's is thriving by offering Pakistani food with little fanfare and fewer thrills.
The scene at Shah Jee's, which shares space with the New No. 1 Chinese Restaurant, evokes memories of a high school cafeteria: people line up for hot meals served on paper plates atop plastic trays; they sit at spartan tables under fluorescent lights and eat with plastic utensils.
The big difference, of course, is the quality of the food.
Shah Jee's, which is open only for lunch, serves food that is flavorful enough to overcome any shortcomings in atmosphere. The price -- $7 for two curry items served with basmati rice or roti (a fresh round wheat flour bread) and a soft drink -- keeps customers happy. In fact, many consider it to be one of the "best kept secrets" in town.
"The food is outstanding," said Michael Hart, an attorney who frequents the restaurant along with dozens of "regulars" from nearby offices such as Northwestern Mutual Life. "There is a reason it's crowded all the time."
The signature dish at Shah Jee's is chicken masala -- tender cubes of boneless chicken cooked in a reddish gravy. The mixture of onions, garlic, tomatoes and other spices (possibly ginger and chili powder) is spicy, but not in a way that will make you lunge for a beverage. The flavors tickle the taste buds, but don't leave your mouth burning until dinner time.
As an accompaniment to the masala, many diners choose chana masala, a serving of chick peas cooked with tomatoes and onions. Other options include aalu palak, potatoes and spinach cooked with herbs and spices and saag paneer, cubes of cheese cooked in chopped spinach with fresh Pakistani herbs. Daal masoor, which features red lentils flavored with garlic cloves, green spices and other "authentic" herbs, is another popular choice.
The basmati rice, fragrant and fluffy, has a nutty flavor and serves as a perfect complement to the spice of the main dishes.
Shah Jee's is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays. The restaurant does not serve alcohol, but offers Pepsi and Coke products and bottled water.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.