Ali Haider, the cover star of PMQ’s November 2017 issue, is half-Iraqi, half-Indian and all Italian. He’s also the dashing pizzaiolo behind the best pizzeria in the country, at least according to Yelp.
Sapori di 786 Degrees, located in Pasadena, California, headed up Yelp’s recent list of the Top 100 Pizza Spots in the U.S. and Canada. Haider, who was born in Iraq and raised in Kuwait, serves all-halal pizzas at his two 786 Degrees locations (the other one is in Sun Valley, California). A member of the U.S. Pizza Team, he describes himself as an “ambassador of international flavors.”
“Each pizza is internationally inspired, representing a different country and the ingredients that make those cultures unique,” Yelp notes on its website. “Yelpers rave about the Bombay Tikka Masala, featuring classic Indian spices, and the El Chapo, topped with chorizo, cilantro and other Mexican-influenced flavors.”
To be a little more specific, the Bombay Tikka Masala features a yogurt-based sauce called haideri, made with 21 herbs and spices, along with Turkish doner kebab (chicken cooked on a vertical rotisserie), onions, mozzarella, olive oil and Himalayan salt, all topped with fresh cucumber slices. Another 786 Degrees favorite, the Habibi, boasts an Egyptian garlic yogurt sauce, lamb or beef kofta—a type of Middle Eastern meatball—plus smoked mozzarella, roasted onions and Egyptian herbs and spices.
Haider told PMQ that adhering to the Muslim rules of halal is more than a spiritual commitment. Halal cuisine, he believes, just tastes better. “People enjoy halal foods more because they feel like, ‘Oh, my God, halal meat tastes so fresh, and it’s healthier,’” he explained. “Of course, as the chef, I take the credit, but the reality is, that meat’s not frozen for years like other meat. Ninety-five percent of my clientele do not even know what halal means, but they do notice the difference.”
More interesting facts about Haider: He’s a former Mr. India-America who speaks six languages. And prior to getting into the pizza business, he was a spokesmodel for Volkwagen, promoting luxury cars like the Lamborghini, Porsche and Bentley. But, in his case, being a spokesmodel was about a lot more than flashing his million-dollar dimples. “I was a [communications] liaison between the company and the media and worked closely with design teams and engineering teams before a new prototype would be launched so I could explain them to the media,” he told PMQ. “It was a dream job—you get to drive the coolest cars, but you don’t have to sell them. You just write articles about them. It was the coolest gig ever. I still miss it.”
In addition to 786 Degrees, two other pizzerias highlighted in PMQ in recent years made the Yelp Top 100 list. Zazas Pizzeria in Chicago, featured in the March 2022 issue, cracked Yelp’s Top 100 this year at No. 97—after just a little more than a year in business. Owners Brett and Chadd Nemec, who opened Zazas in December 2021, have quickly earned widespread acclaim for their New York-style pies served up in the heart of deep-dish country.
Meanwhile, Tribecca Allie Café, featured on PMQ’s October 2015 cover, made Yelp’s list at No. 77. It’s owned by a pair of transplanted New Yorkers, Dutch and Rebecca van Oostendorp, who have bought Big Apple flair to the tiny hamlet of Sardis, Mississippi, with woodfired pies like the Polpette (meatballs, ricotta, mozzarella and oregano) and the Florentine (ricotta cream, mozz, spinach, mushrooms, red onions and prosciutto).
Another past PMQ cover subject, Crust, a Miami eatery owned by Klime and Anita Kovaceski featured in April 2018, also attained glory from Yelp this year, getting ranked No. 50 in the site’s “Top 100 Places to Eat” list for 2023. That’s in addition to being named to The Daily Meal’s “101 Best Pizzas in America” list in 2020 and OpenTable’s “Top 100 Restaurants in America” roster in 2019.
How do they do it? “I graduated [from college] in restaurant and hotel management, first and foremost,” Klime told PMQ recently. “So, for me, interaction with my guests, employees and suppliers is everything.”
What’s Klime’s best piece of advice for other restaurateurs? “Always break your old habits,” he said. “Never think that you know everything. Go to work with one thing on your mind: What is it that I can learn today that I didn’t know yesterday?”