Nasir Zubair vividly remembers the first thrill he had cooking — the sense of ownership over a dish and pride in the process. When he was a very young child growing up in Houston, he would taste Pakistani dishes influenced from his dad’s Karachi upbringing and assist his mom in the kitchen. “She would give me a little task like making garlic paste or a certain masala,” he says. “I was a little guy and would peel garlic and ginger, putting it in the food processor and pressing the button. It was like, ‘Oh, cool. I helped make this.’ And so I think often I’ll want to go back to that place.”
Zubair now makes culinary connections to his familial roots at Karachi Cowboys, the new Capitol Hill restaurant he opened with wife Nicole Greenwald earlier this summer. Featuring a mix of Pakistani and Indian dishes, with some Texas barbecue in the mix, the restaurant is now starting to hit its stride. In addition to a more robust dinner menu and completed decor, wine and beer selections have recently been rolled out, and both happy hour and lunch services are on the way soon. “We’re excited to offer more plates and shareable dishes now that our beer and wine licenses have come in,” Zubair says. “And there’s some new tenants that recently moved into our building, so we’re hoping to delight them.”
With a steady stream of customers in the cozy space on 12th Avenue E, the couple appreciates the warm welcome they’ve already received from the neighborhood as they’ve steadily built up the business from its smaller pop-up roots. Karachi Cowboys began in 2019 serving up aloo sliders with tamarind barbecue sauce, pickled cauliflower, and other delectable bar snacks at locations such as Holy Mountain Brewing, Mean Sandwich, Fair Isle Brewing, and Alexandra’s Macarons, earning praise from the Seattle Times, which swooned over its kheema.
But the plan was always to create a full-fledged restaurant. With help from a Kickstarter campaign, Zubair and Greenwald bought a location in the historic Ballou Wright Building from wine purveyors Glinda (which is now mainly an online, subscription-based business), and have settled into their groove. They slowly built out the location into a modern, airy dining room, with some touches that nod to Zubair’s roots (the Royal Basmati Rice burlap bags, the neon cowboy hat sign), and included a retail case selling pantry items. “I think having our own space lets us really foster the hospitality and the values that are important to us,” says Greenwald, adding that offering sustainable jobs, as well as profit-sharing for employees, was a key element of the move.
The area itself holds some special significance for the married couple. Around 12 years ago, Zubair worked at the former Stumptown Coffee Roasters location just a few blocks away, and Greenwald was a server at nearby Plum Bistro. Greenwald recalls meeting Zubair when he came into the restaurant to deliver coffee. She gave him her number at the time, although they didn’t start dating until seven years later. “We reconnected, and 12th Avenue has actually been a really big part of our story,” Greenwald says.
But they also recognize that there is a symbol of recent neighborhood trauma right next to the restaurant — the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. It was just last summer when cops in riot gear tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed demonstrators for nights on end around the building, leading to the short-lived formation of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP). After much backlash, police eventually withdrew their heavy presence in the area and boarded up the front of the East Precinct building, while city authorities later shut down the CHOP. Even though the thick concrete wall erected as a security measure came down earlier in 2021, the lobby remains closed to the public, a reminder of the deep wounds that are still present from that period.
For their part, Zubair and Greenwald (who is a licensed therapist) do not shy away from the darker side of the block. “There’s a lot of fast driving and sirens, and you can see people still react to some of that, those body trauma memories,” says Greenwald. “That’s something we honestly talk a lot about with customers, and I noticed people will start freely sharing their experiences ... I think we want to acknowledge the impact, while finding a more dignified and healthy way to be together as a community.” Adds Zubair, “We’re trying to add some light and love to a block that’s dealt with a lot in the past year.”
That healing comes through the food primarily, with a menu that reflects Zubair’s background. He shies away from the term “fusion,” rather reflecting on the “non-traditional traditional” dishes that bring together family and cultural influences. And he also wants to lean into the “friendship and camaraderie” he remembers from Texas barbecue culture, where people would swap tips on the best ways to burn charcoal. To that end, in the fall, the restaurant aims to host a Sunday potluck series, inviting other chefs — including former Karachi Cowboys collaborator Kyle Johnson — to do more smoked barbecue-focused dishes on off-days.
As the restaurant industry undergoes dramatic shifts in an ongoing pandemic, Zubair and Greenwald remain nimble. They hope that the passion that goes into the food comes through, but also recognize the value of sharing space. “A lot of people have left the industry altogether, a lot of places closed,” says Greenwald. “ I think there’s a lot to learn and we’re hoping to create a new path forward.”