SOUTHINGTON — Atif Anwar and his wife Nina’s restaurant was only open for a week before the pandemic closed all local restaurants to dine-in customers.
“We weren’t even sure what coronavirus at the time meant,” Anwar said. “I think we will come back from this and just like any other restaurant, things will turn back for us eventually.”
Nina’s Desi Kitchen, 26 North Main St., seats about 12 and is decorated with hand painted art from a handful of artists in Pakistan. It opened March 11.
Luckily, the kitchen has a take-out centric model, so they’ve been able to stay afloat enough to pay a full-time sous chef and rent, Anwar said. It is the Manchester couple’s first restaurant.
Although Anwar can cook all types of food— Italian, Mexican, Chinese— the couple chose to focus on Pakistani food, mixing a variety of very traditional regional dishes with newer, unique ones.
“We basically tried to find what we love back in Pakistan,” Anwar said.
Anwar and Najia “Nina” Atif grew up in the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa (northwestern) region of Pakistan and moved to the United States when Anwar was studying for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Both had careers outside the restaurant industry, but quit them together last October to pursue their passion for cooking. A car accident in 2012, which left Anwar partially disabled, pushed the couple to make the change.
“Everything changes after that,” he said. “It tells you what life is about.”
The menu includes many dishes that are unique.
Anwar said Pashtun cuisine from northern Pakistan isn’t often found at Indian and Pakistani restaurants in the U.S. Ghatay Wrejay — a thick stew-like dish cooked with sticky brown rice, pulled beef and mung beans — is one example.
Anwar said so far customers have been curious and open to trying the menu items.
Southington resident Holly D’Addario said she and her husband have been trying different takeout foods in an effort to support local restaurants during the pandemic. She said neither had tried Pakistani food before.
“We both loved it,” she said. “I wasn't sure what to expect, but the flavors were very unique.”
The couple, who ordered through a third party delivery app, said the process was easy and the food came hot. They selected shahi biryani, karahi (punjabi), chicken samosa and paneer cheese pikoras.
Because Anwar bought thousands of dollars of groceries just before the restaurant mandate, he didn’t want to see it go to waste. Instead, the couple started giving away free or discounted food to locals in need, no questions asked. The offer was posted on local the Facebook forum, “Southington Talks.”
“That actually was pretty good because we found quite a few people that consistently need support,” Anwar said.
The kitchen is accepting monetary donations to continue the service, via its website.
Nina’s Desi Kitchen is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 8:30 p.m. and closed Sundays. After the dine-in mandate is lifted, they plan to extend by an hour each night. Order by calling (860) 281-1786 or through GrubHub or UberEats. The kitchen is MSG and peanut-free and can cater to halal, vegan and vegetarian restrictions.