With the recent opening of Pakistani restaurant Sofi’z Kitchen and Bar, it is now possible to sample food and culture from around the world within just a few steps along the 100 block of Broadway in downtown Chico. In addition to local Mexican cuisine staples Tres Hombres and Aca Taco and the longstanding Thai Basil, Sofi’z—along with the established Alibaba (Syrian/Mediterranean food) and opened-last-year Lili’s Brazilian Bistro—completes a trifecta of newer, exotic eateries all lined up next door to each other.
This new addition adds significantly to the developing cosmopolitan character of the block. The all-window storefront offers an intriguing peek at the interior of Sofi’z, with its blue accents and bountiful strings of flowers and baubles dangling from the ceiling. The restaurant was near capacity when I visited recently—not bad for a drizzly weekday lunch-hour less than a month after its Dec. 17 opening—and several welcoming staff members invited me to take a seat at the bar, where one of two big-screen TVs played videos of elaborately dressed, beautiful women doing synchronized dances.
I resisted temptation to have a glass of wine or a beer from Sofi’z wide selection, and instead enjoyed a sip from a glass poured from a decanter of cold water delivered by a friendly waiter. Within minutes, a woman I soon discovered was owner Sofia Ahmed herself placed a small dish of nimco—a trail mix-like blend of spicy salty peanuts, lentils, garbanzo beans and crispy noodles—in front of me and said, “Thank you for visiting my little restaurant,” before returning to her cooking duties.
I’ll admit I don’t have much experience with Pakistani food. Several of the dishes are regional variations of Indian and Mediterranean entrees I’m more familiar with, and the menu provides paragraph-length descriptions of each item. I opted for a shami chicken kebab appetizer (a small, fried patty of ground chicken, lantum and spices served with a vegetable and yogurt sauce called raita, $2.99); cheese-stuffed paratha (flour naan-like bread which includes meat or potato filling options, $8); and hot and spicy chicken and rice (breaded chicken cubes in a thick, sweet sauce served with basmati rice, $11.99).
The food was all superb, and a welcome diversion from the norm. The chicken dish was especially delicious, with the portion substantial enough for me to enjoy it again for that night’s dinner. It certainly lived up to its name, and I was thankful for that bottle of water.
The woman behind the bar—Sofia’s sister, Maira—was very pleasant, and she had a great sense of humor. When I asked if the movie that started was Indian or Pakistani, she confirmed it was a Bollywood production, which she explained tend to be more lighthearted. “In Pakistan the films are a lot more serious. We’re Muslim so when we get sad we read the Koran. When Indians get sad they sing and dance,” she joked.
As I sat enjoying the meal and the movie, Chico lawyer/luminary Denny Latimer and a friend also bellied up to the bar, and began extolling the restaurant’s virtues. Latimer said he’d brought his whole family the previous weekend. (I don’t personally know him, but I have seen him perform at Bloomsday events with Irish-music choir Celtic Knights of the Sea. I told him as much, which led to an a discussion about the James Joyce book Ulysses, during which he told me the secret to finishing the notoriously difficult book is reading it backwards.)
As the lunch rush died down, Ahmed joined the conversation and shared her history, a story as unexpected and intriguing as the rest of my visit to the restaurant. It turns out she is a celebrity in her home country, a veteran actress of more than 20 years who, after several visits to America, decided to move here with her father, sister and son. She landed in New Jersey three years ago and opened a restaurant, at the time not even knowing how to speak English.
Then the pandemic started, leading to that venture’s closure and concerns about her family’s health. During one previous tour of America—while serving as an emcee for efforts to raise money for breast cancer (she mentioned she’s a cancer survivor herself, and donated her appearance fees back to the organization)—she’d met and befriended Chico’s Farshad Azad, owner of Azad’s Martial Arts Center. Azad suggested she come to Chico, which she said she’d previously visited and fell in love with, so she did.
With the world in COVID lockdown, Sofia studied English and received a GED and certification to be a medical assistant, and got a job at Chico Eye Center, where she said she loved the work but continued to dream of opening her own restaurant. Since that dream came true these past couple of months, she said she’s been working constantly, losing sleep, and loving every minute of it.
When asked which of her recipes visitors should try first, she strongly recommends the qurma (goat curry, $19.50) and the paya curry (made with goat’s hooves, $20). She said some of the most popular dishes are the chicken biryani ($17) and the lunch I had (which she calls “spice-and-rice” and said she invented for her son). The biggest raves she hears, though, are for her samosas.
“Everyone is loving my samosas and people tell me a lot of stories about how it is the best they’ve ever had,” she said. “Last Saturday night alone we sold 233 of them!”
All in all, it was an extraordinary visit to downtown Chico, enjoying a lunch of new flavors while discussing Irish literature with a local icon and cracking jokes with an internationally famous actress/model. Not bad for a rainy Tuesday afternoon.
Sofi’z Kitchen and Bar
134 Broadway, (530) 592-3969
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.