An Observer staffer who lives in east Ann Arbor describes the businesses around Packard and Platt as having a “low-energy charm.” The quiet backwater of shops, restaurants, and services can make you grateful that some landlords in Ann Arbor are apparently charging reasonable rents–yet also fearful it’s all one planning commission vote away from becoming the next high-rise PUD. Every time a gritty, gallant business signs a lease here, it’s a cause to rejoice. The latest is Once Upon a Grill, or “home of the kati roll,” as it bills itself.
Owners Furrokh Khan and wife Farah Ejaz aren’t new to the restaurant business. Khan says most people assumed he was the owner of the Eastern Flame, where Blimpy Burger is now, though he actually managed it for his cousin Ali Mustafah. Mustafah works for IBM in Dubai and now spends most of his time there. Eastern Flame closed around the time Reza Rahmani was buying up the Ashley St. block that housed it, but that wasn’t the reason Khan, fifty, and Mustafah closed it. “I had four heart attacks in one month!” Khan says. “I’m fine now. I’m watching my diet, taking care of myself.”
Once Upon a Grill is smaller and humbler than Eastern Flame. Instead of tables, he’s installed one long counter along the front of the former City’s Pizza and Subs, and in nice weather he puts tables outside, but most customers carry out. The menu brings back most of what he served at the Eastern Flame. “His customers are very loyal,” agrees customer Nitin Singh, who works at Deque (pronounced DQ) Systems on South Main. Singh says his brother told him the Eastern Flame guy was back in business, and he headed straight there. “Only a few places serve biryani, and he makes the real thing,” Singh says, then places his order in Hindi. “But,” he says, switching back to English, “kati rolls are very good too. They’re very big all across south Asia.” Another customer sticks his head in the door, quickly calls out something in another language, and ducks out again. “He was speaking Urdu,” says Khan. “He said he wanted an order of chicken biryani and would be right back.” The next phone call was in his hometown language, Sindhi. Khan also speaks Punjabi and Arabic and understands Farsi.
Khan is Pakistani (and spent a lot of his childhood in Saudi Arabia where his father was an executive for Lever Brothers), but he says the food across northern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is the same. Salads, fries, and burgers appear on the menu, but customers mainly come for biryani (spicy rice pilaf) and kati rolls, the south Asian version of gyros–fresh, griddle-cooked flatbread wrapped around spiced meat or vegetables. The fillings are as varied as Indian food itself. Khan offers ten vegetarian katis and about sixteen with meat.
Once Upon a Grill opened around the beginning of Ramadan, when devout Muslims fast until sunset, and Khan was pretty casual about the hours. He promised hours would be regular as soon as Ramadan was over.
Once Upon a Grill, 3148 Packard, 997-5277. Mon.-Thurs., Sat. & Sun. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri. 4 p.m.-11 p.m. No website.