Even though stories still circulate about a dwindling Pakistani presence in the city, and even though Coney Island Avenue’s Little Lahore seems to be shriveling, Pakistani restaurants have been popping up elsewhere around Brooklyn, offering cheap meals of rice, roasted meat, vegetable curries, and smoking-hot flatbreads. Not to be confused with the Manhattan Malaysian of the same name, Skyway is a gleaming new café located in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, unfurling a bright blue awning from which a few opening-day pennants still flutter. Inside, the decor depends on hammered brass bas-reliefs of flowers carefully spaced along the walls. As we ate our first lunch there, a pair of Pakistani parents—dad in skullcap and shovel-shaped gray beard, mom wearing a flowered shalwaar kameez—were having an intergenerational heart-to-heart with their son, who wore baggy basketball shorts and a backwards Yankees cap over a black do-rag.
What makes Pakistani food different from Indian? The cuisine is more elemental, strongly flavored with fresh ginger, garlic, and green chiles, and far less dependent on the powdered spice combos central to Indian cooking. Yes, meat is front and center, but often beguilingly combined with veggies—especially squashes, okra, tomatoes, and lentils. A case in point is haleem ($5.99), sometimes called the national dish. It’s listed on the menu as a Saturday special, but seems to be available most of the time. Handed over the counter on a plate, the gray mass of whipped lamb and lentils roils like a storm cloud on the horizon. The texture, too, is cloud-like: buoyant and multi-lobed, so that when you spoon it onto the accompanying rice pilaf, it sits on top and doesn’t sink in. Tendrils of fresh ginger provide pungency.
Goat curry ($4.99), on the other hand, depends for its powerful savor on the shards of cinnamon bark that bob among the meat chunks. The halal goat is so fresh it might have been grazing in a flowering meadow earlier that day. Another afternoon we enjoyed something the waitress called “chicken with egg,” which plunged whole boiled eggs and pieces of chicken in a tomato sauce from which orange oil oozed—a no-no in French cooking, but a yes-yes in Pakistani. From a steam table selection of a dozen dishes, there are usually three or four vegetarian ones. Best is a curry made with the sinuous and pale green snake squash ($3.50), which keeps its firmness and delicate color despite long stewing.
Skyway offers none of the three-selections-over-rice specials common to places like Cuisine of Pakistani and Lexington Avenue’s wonderful Haandi. The prices mentioned above, though, represent substantial servings, so it’s best to go with a crowd and share several. That way you can also taste a broad range of the exceptional flatbreads, which run from a puffy tallow-slicked naan to a spicy potato-stuffed aloo paratha to a qeema paratha ($3) featuring thin crisp layers of pastry separated by a cumin-flavored chicken mince that glues the layers together as surely as rubber cement.
Hands down, the most impressive dish is batair masala ($5.99 for two). Lined up in the steam-table receptacle like Rockettes, the quail carcasses kick their legs high in the thick red sauce. The dark tender meat is infused with garlic and ginger, so the taste is as pretty as the spectacle. And you won’t find tastier (or cheaper) game birds anywhere in town.