August 8, 2012

WTH? Athens

Car Wash Curry

Who among us, after spending a sweaty hour at the self-service car wash vacuuming and scrubbing the family roadster, does not look forward to cracking open a cool bag of fenugreek leaves and settling down to a steaming plate of Palak Paneer? It's a cherished summer ritual we all enjoy. But frustratingly, our options for accessing the flavors of Southeast Asia while washing our own cars were woefully limited in Athens. Until now.

Mushtaq Pasha, an enterprising, friendly man hailing from Bangalore, India, knows an under-served market when he sees one, and so a year ago he purchased the Laser Car Wash on Milledge Avenue, turning the small retail space attached to the building into a remarkably well stocked international grocery store.

"First Class Groceries" features items from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East. Shoppers can find a wide selection of interesting spices, beans and boxed meals, as well as fresh vegetables, yogurt and fruit drinks and frozen foods. The store is a great addition to the other international groceries that have sprung up on South Milledge, such as Fooks Foods and the creatively named "Oriental Market." It's also just the first stage of Mr. Pasha's grand plan.

"I actually did not buy this place to run a car wash," admits Pasha when I visit him at the store. "You see the sign on the grocery store says ‘First Class Groceries,’ but the sign near the road reads ‘Desi Bazaar.’ That is because I plan to turn this property into a proper bazaar someday, with an expanded retail market selling clothing and other international goods, and a restaurant at the end, where the laser car wash used to be."

"You mean the laser car wash is gone?" This is unwelcome news to me. I'm so enthusiastic about anything involving lasers that I'd seriously considered having my daughter's sixth birthday party at the laser car wash. I gaze outside at the forlorn concrete bunker where once so much magic had happened.

"I'm afraid so," says Pasha. "This property was foreclosed, and the bays did not work. I fixed the self-serve areas but closed the laser car wash. When I get the permit to open the restaurant, I am going to close the bays as well and expand the retail space."

No amount of pleading would convince him to continue running a self-serve car wash in between an Indian restaurant and an international grocery store, but he's the businessman.

"The customer base for the car wash is completely different than that of the store," says Pasha. "You see, there is a mosque right across the street where 300 people worship. Everything we sell is Halal, appropriate for Muslims to eat. And many, many international students live in the nearby apartments and in family housing. They come here, because we are close to their homes and sell food they recognize from their countries. They don't care about washing their cars. They don't have cars."

And the customers who come here to wash their cars?

"They don't care about international foods." Brilliant!

I run outside to see if this is true. Sure enough, the one car wash customer, a sunburned blonde smoking a cigarette and wearing a very un-Halal tank top, has never even been in the store. "I just come here to wash my car," she says in a thick Southern accent.

"Would you ever go in the store?" I ask her.

"Well, maybe if I needed a drink or something. But my friend went in there and he said it was all Indian food."

"Are you surprised that it's all Indian food?"

"No," she says breezily, gesturing with the hand holding the cigarette, "There's Indians everywhere."

I return to the store and resume my conversation with Mr. Pasha. "What do you do besides run this store?"

"I am a trustee at the mosque. Additionally, I am employed by EITS (Enterprise Information Technology Services) at the University of Georgia, where I am the administrator in charge of managing the university's core databases, such as finance and payroll."

Mr. Pasha is wise to have something to fall back on when EITS finally implodes, but he can't do it alone, people. Car wash customers, consider visiting the market the next time your vehicle needs a scrub, and you'll be delighted by the vast array of exotic spices and Mr. Pasha's helpful recipe suggestions (see handy sidebar). International students, on your next visit to the grocery, why not drive there in a very dirty rental car? If we all pull together, South Milledge Avenue will continue to develop a unique international flavor, and I won't have to drive all the way downtown to get Indian food.

Handy Sidebar

I ask Mr. Pasha what someone unfamiliar with Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine might like to try. He considers for a moment and then leads me over to a bag of small dried beans. "The channa (chickpea)," he declares. "It is represented in every country! In the Middle East, you may make hummus. In India, there is channa massala. And in Georgia… in Georgia...“

"We put it on salads," I suggest.

"Exactly! You see, the chickpea is versatile, healthy and cheap. Tell your readers to visit me, and I will help them find the ingredients they need to make any chickpea dish."

To whet your appetite, here's a recipe for hummus using ingredients you'll find at First Class Groceries. Enjoy!

2 cups cooked chickpeas, 1/4 cup tahini, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 large garlic clove—minced, 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth. Garnish with olive oil or parsley and serve with raw veggies or pita bread.