Nestled into the heart of California Avenue is one of Palo Alto’s most popular Indian-Pakistani restaurants: Zareen’s, which was recognized as a Michelin Guide Restaurant in 2017 and 2018.
The Daily sat down with Zareen’s owner Zareen Khan, which has two locations in Mountain View and Palo Alto. Khan, who is originally from Karachi, Pakistan, opened her Mountain View location in 2012 and her Palo Alto location in 2014 as a way to share beloved family recipes. Now, she continues to manage both locations in her mission to create “peace and harmony” through food.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How and when did Zareen’s get recognized as a Michelin Guide Restaurant?
Zareen Khan (ZK): I was just searching and Zareen’s shows up as a Michelin Guide restaurant and I said, cool, I didn’t even know about it. They listed us in 2016 but selected us in  and 2018 … The Michelin award is for our Mountain View location.
TSD: Why is the Palo Alto location more popular?
ZK: Mountain View is smaller and [next to] Google, which gives [employees] free food – but people still come.
TSD: Why did you want to open Zareen’s?
ZK: I worked in corporate for about 10 to 12 years, but for some reason, it wasn’t satisfying for me. So finally I decided I was going to do something of my own. I had many constraints: I was married, I had kids, my husband traveled a lot … S,o then, within [this] framework, what could work? So I started with food. I didn’t think at all of starting a restaurant, I just started cooking classes, teaching cooking, so that evolved into frozen entrees, catering and a restaurant.
TSD: Are Zareen’s recipes family recipes or recipes you picked up along the way?
ZK: My parents are from India; they migrated to Pakistan, so the recipes are a lot of what I grew up having. And then when I moved [to the U.S.], I missed all those things, even the things outside of the things my mom made, the things we would go and buy, like halwaa puri. Every Sunday, I would go out with my dad and we’d buy halwaa puri for breakfast. So I missed it, and I tried to make it here for myself and my family. So when I opened the restaurant, I worked on the recipes by memory. Our recipes are still evolving, until we get to a level where I feel like the flavors are balanced.
TSD: Do you feel like your recipes taste as good as your mom’s recipes?
ZK: I think I come pretty close, but you know, when your mom makes something, it has that mom’s love in it. You can never get that anywhere else.
TSD: What was the first sign that your restaurant was going to be successful?
ZK: When I opened the Mountain View location, I didn’t know how well it would do. It was pretty close to Google, where [employees] get free food. Within three months [of opening], we had line going out the door.
TSD: Why do you think that happened so quickly?
ZK: [The Google staff] wanted to get off campus, so they came for the food and fell in love with the food [at Zareen’s]. People knew me from before because of the cooking classes, so when I opened the place, people knew. I was surprised.
TSD: Do you ever feel tired after such long days at the restaurant?
ZK: Here, even after 14 hours of work, I don’t feel tired. I’m full of energy. You know how sometimes you get a high from work? I never experienced that until I opened this restaurant. Especially when I meet people of the community here, it makes all the hard work worth it.
TSD: What has it been like to see famous people come to your restaurant?
ZK: Oh, we were so shocked when Mark Zuckerberg came in.
TSD: What did he order?
ZK: Everyone wants to know. He ordered the chicken tikka masala, the chicken memoni samosas, the lamb dish and the tandoori burger – for him and his wife.
TSD: What does the Michelin Guide Restaurant status mean to you?
ZK: You know, awards are good, but for me the biggest award is the things that people come and tell me about the food.
TSD: What is the next step for you and Zareen’s?
ZK: Right now I’m thinking about keeping the quality up, and maybe expansion, but not yet. You know, a lot of restaurants start off well and expand, but then their quality is hard to control. I want to make sure that the quality is strong, that even when I expand, it doesn’t affect the food; the food should be as good as the day we opened.
TSD: You brand your restaurant as a Pakistani-Indian restaurant. What was your thinking behind it?
ZK: The recipes are all the same. There’s overlap between Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, so there’s no point in excluding it based on boundaries. As my dad always said, “Art and food knows no boundaries,” so for me this is art.
TSD: The decor in here – wow! There are murals but then books hanging from the wall, and then the memes – May you tell me about them?
ZK: I enjoy this part of my work, being creative with the artwork and decor; it’s very whimsical. It’s very liberal, very inclusive.
TSD: This is a really popular spot for Stanford students, so what do you think students should take away from their experience here?
ZK: One of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing is that I want people to see an immigrant family and how they’re contributing to society, and their hospitality and their culture. Also, I want to be very inclusive, so for me I love to see different types of people sharing bread here. That’s how I designed the menu. I don’t want just Pakistanis coming, I don’t want just Indians coming – I want people from all over the world enjoying the cuisine. You know, bring peace and harmony with food.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.
Contact Aparna Verma at averma2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.