Charminar - food

A selection of dishes at Charminar Indian Restaurant

Charminar’s menu is four large, laminated pages long, designed in black and gold. The restaurant itself is sparse, mainly because it opened two days before the COVID shutdowns, so the dining room was immediately converted into a to-go meal prep area. Hanging on the walls are scenes from Hyderabad, a city in the state of Telangana. Most notably, you’ll see images of Charminar, a historic and religious monument and one of Hyderabad’s most popular tourist attractions. The restaurant pays homage not just to the monument but to the famous surrounding local markets, known for their excellent Hyderabadi cuisine. 

The star? Hyderabadi biryani. 

The history of biryani is as complex and rich as the dish itself, with many states in India having their own method of cooking and different primary ingredients. Hyderabadi biryani descends from the Moghul regime and is one of the most popular kinds of biryani. With its yogurt-marinated meat sandwiched into perfectly fluffy rice studded with fried onions, yielding a depth of spice that can come only from patiently steaming for hours on end in clay pots, it’s no wonder that cousins Syed Afzal and Abdul Basith craved it regularly after moving to California to pursue jobs in the tech world.

“We’re from Hyderabad and we were really missing Hyderabadi food,” Afzal says. “The flavors and all, you just couldn’t find it anywhere. So we said, ‘Let’s open a restaurant.’” That restaurant was Tikka Lounge in Poway, a counter-service spot that serves up classic street food favorites, like samosas, pakoras, and chaat, along with heartier entrées like kormas and vindaloos. “We had to keep the spices low because Hyderabadi food has a kick,” Afzal says. Being novices in the restaurant industry, they wanted to serve foods they loved while also making them more approachable.

Charminar - Syed Afzal

Syed Afzal, co-owner of Charminar

After seeing the success of Tikka Lounge, the duo decided to open Charminar, originally envisioning it as a typical Hyderabadi restaurant with buffet lunch specials for the working crowd in Mira Mesa. The restaurant opened on March 14, 2020 and, by March 16, San Diego shut down. Afzal and Basith invested around half a million dollars to get Charminar up and running, and within days they were scrambling to survive. “We were making $25, sometimes just $30 a day,” Afzal recalls. 

Most people in this scenario would’ve clung to their stable day jobs. Not Afzal. He quit his job at Qualcomm to focus full-time on the restaurant. Together, the family launched the Neighborhood Love Program, which donated over 12,000 meals in 2020. They created incentives such as “buy a meal, donate a meal” and began to partner with organizations like the Muslim Leadership Council of San Diego and Telangana Association of San Diego to help with fundraisers and donations for those affected by COVID both locally and in India. Their tremendous community efforts spurred word-of-mouth that began driving business back to the restaurant. “It was really humbling,” Afzal says (humbly). “Bringing communities together is fun. You get to meet new people and help people.”

Charminar - interior

One bite of their chicken Chettinad (an aromatic dish featuring chicken cooked in a rich and spicy gravy) tells you everything you need to know about why they became so popular, so quickly. “We wanted to replicate our kitchen food and bring it to a wider population,” Afzal says. Every dish is a recipe developed by family members and brought to life by Indian chefs. All of Charminar’s spices are imported directly from India and their meats are halal. The menu isn’t all Hyderabadi, though—don’t sleep on the Indo-Chinese section—the gobi Manchurian is a go-to favorite of mine. But if you’re keeping things traditional, you can’t go wrong with any of their gravy dishes and a hearty helping of their Hyderabadi biryani. Also, let it go on record that their chicken tikka masala and their butter chicken are the best I’ve had in a long, long time. Worried about spice levels? The restaurant is happy to help you find what works with your palate (and there’s always chilled mango lassi). 

Excited? Life’s about to get even better—Charminar just bought the space next door and is converting it into a larger dining room, open for guests this summer. Their existing space will unveil yet a new concept: Dosa Studio, also coming this summer.


Sabrina Medora is a national food writer living with her husband and golden doodle, Albus, in San Diego. Her work has appeared in award-winning publications like Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Wine Enthusiast, and more.

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