New restaurant brings Pakistani food to Iowa City

Elijah Decious

IOWA CITY: When Fawad Nawaz moved from Pakistan to Yorkshire, England, at age 18, restaurant work was just what he did to pay the bills.

At an aunt’s suggestion, he took a job at a family Pakistani restaurant, where he learned to make the kinds of dishes that are British favorites across the U.K.

Now 42 and living in Iowa, he has opened one of Iowa City’s first Pakistani restaurants — and currently its only one — for something more than the money. Like many cooks from all ethnicities and walks of life, he does it for the reaction.

Fawad Nawaz stands for a portrait at his restaurant, Hot & Roll, in Iowa City, Iowa on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

“I have the skills, and I love to feed people,” Nawaz said. “When they like it, I enjoy it, because I’m a people person.”

At Hot & Roll, the new restaurant owner is bringing a South Asian style to Iowa City with a European twist.

What’s on the menu?

With a small menu on this establishment’s no-frills tables, Nawaz takes pride in introducing a new cuisine to the city he’s called home for the past few years.

Dishes like roll paratha and chicken shawarma bring some of the most authentic options with an accessible entry point for those new to Pakistani cuisine. Diners may notice some similarities with Indian food — which makes sense for a country that shares a large portion of its border with India.

While cooked similarly, the two cuisines use a different range of spices and herbs.

The roll paratha combines lemon pepper chicken and gyro meat on a homemade, unleavened bread that still is a little doughy. Combined with a sweet base sauce with yogurt, red pepper, black pepper, salt and lemon pepper, the restaurant’s signature offers a refreshing wrap with a balanced crunch from lettuce and green peppers.

That dish’s place on the menu came at the insistence of University of Iowa students from Pakistan, Nawaz said.

Several kebab naan combo meals start at a modest price, complementing more familiar items made in a different style, including gyros and chicken shawarma. The chick pea salad, another signature, uses a sauce similar to the roll paratha.

American favorites are combined with some of his favorites, making new creations like gyro cheeseburgers alongside fries, tacos, Philly cheesesteaks and other grill standards.

Fawad Nawaz works in the kitchen of his restaurant, Hot & Roll, in Iowa City, Iowa on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Serving through the British lens he learned to cook through, Nawaz hopes to make Pakistani food here as much of a favorite as it is in the U.K. Since opening in late June, he said its unique style has been what customers love most — even on something as common as fried rice.

“If you ask people about Pakistani food there, they know it,” he said.

Eventually, he hopes to expand the menu to other British classics, like fish and chips, with a Pakistani twist.

Chickpea salad at Hot & Roll in Iowa City, Iowa on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

How it happened

At first, Nawaz simply wanted to run a food truck — the same one that sits in front of his restaurant today.

In 2008, he moved to Iowa, where his wife and family lived. After working other types of jobs, he was ready to employ his cooking skills again.

The brick-and-mortar restaurant came at the prompt of a health inspector, who noted he would need a different place to store leftover ingredients. When he signed a lease for the former location of Best China, which closed earlier this year, the idea grew to size.

Coming from a heritage of cooking, though, the larger responsibility may suit him. As he now cooks for others, childhood memories of watching his grandmother cook in Karachi, Pakistan, come out.

There, neighbors — many of them Indian — would come ask her how she made her food. There, the Muslim grandmother would cook for Hindus and teach them fundamentals they could apply and customize to their own lives.

Now, through Nawaz, it’s available for delivery, too.

Courtesy: thegazette