A Slice of Hope Sal's Pizza

Happening Issue 90 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya / Photo: ECS Media

“My idea of feng shui is to have them arrange the pepperoni in a circle on my pizza.”

Danielle first heard from a riend about a ‘cool’ pizza place that an American had set up in Lazimpat, behind the Ambassador Hotel. When she first visited Sal’s place, Sal was not there, but she met the young Salim instead whom she mistook to be the American. When she talked about this with her friend, he told her that the American was about fifty years old and looked like a typical American. Thinking she had been misled, Danielle thought about taking this up with Salim the next time she went there, because clearly, she liked the pizza. The mystery was immediately cleared up when Salim explained that ‘Sal’ was short for Salim and that the American, William Levine (‘Bill’ for short) was back in the USA; which brings us back to the young man who runs Sal’s Pizza.

A lot goes unsaid with Salim. He is a quiet young man who chooses his words carefully, perhaps with the same care with which he personally makes all the pizza that is consumed by his growing clientele. His pizza, however, does all the talking and is a great conversation piece too. A self taught cook, Salim was always a foodie, the type who liked to be behind the scene as well. Growing up, he would always hang around the kitchen at friends’ places and take mental notes. After getting home, he would try and replicate in his own kitchen what he has seen. After trying his cooking, friends would always casually suggest him to open up his own restaurant.

The opening of a pizza place required Salim to learn how to make good pizza. How a young Salim who has not had any formal schooling went about training is a fine example of how anything is possible if a person has the will to realize his dreams. Salim simply hung around popular pizza places in Kathmandu such as the Roadhouse Cafe and Fire ’n Ice and memorized what he had seen there. He admits that he is very grateful to the chefs at those places. In the same way that he mastered cooking everything else, Salim would come back home and try his hand at what he had learned at the restaurants. A smiling Salim says that it took him nearly two years to perfect the pizza that he now serves at his own restaurant.

Salim (his full name Mir Salim Ali Khan) was a young boy from Kolkata (Calcutta) who grew up on the streets of Thamel. He was born in a small village near Kolkata and remains unclear on the details of exactly how he got to Kathmandu. He went back to his village very recently to obtain his citizenship papers and when he talks about this his eyes twinkle with earnest fondness for his home. His earliest memories in Kathmandu are of an elderly woman whom he fondly calls didi, who took good care of him. Salim grew up in Thamel selling small knick-knacks and doing the odd job here and there. Of these, he lists construction work as the hardest, but also the most rewarding. Early on Salim was introduced to hard truths. In person, he smiles after every other sentence and looks like any other young man; but it is obvious in the gravity of his weighed words that he has been through his share of turbulence in the streets.

Drugs are easily available in Thamel even with the police cracking down randomly on the pushers and peddlers.  Recreational drugs like marijuana became an easy habit for Salim. Originally, back in the 1970s and 1980s, ‘Freak Street’ or Jhonchhen, near Kathmandu’s Basantapur Durbar Square, was the place to be for the average hippie bumming around the Asian circuit. Drugs were cheap and laws about drugs were yet to be strictly formulated. Jhonchhen became a hippy/backpacker/budget tourist hub. But when the tourist hub moved to Thamel, mainly because Jhonchhen was too small to adjust the huge numbers of tourists arriving each year, the drug trade moved to Thamel as well.

“I never took any hard drugs,” Salim says, just for the record. This habit of his along with a little trouble that was often attached to it became a problem for his didi’s in-laws after she got married. Living on the streets had understandably hardened Salim and after having a fight with her one day, Salim moved out and started to live on the streets. By the age of 12 he had saved up enough to rent a small flat with friends; and because he could always make a quick buck around Thamel and visit his friends’ families for a meal, survival was never a serious issue. It was during this time that Salim first met Bill. Over the years, they met up time and again. By this time, Salim had realized, by looking around at his junkie friends’ lives, that he had to come up with something soon if he wanted a better life. When Bill offered to involve him in opening a pizza place, Salim was more than ready.

The saying, “today is the first day of the rest of your life”, fits Salim’s perfectly. His young life is already a good example of how some people realize that it is within themselves to turn it all around on any given day. Today Sal’s Pizza serves vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian pizza at very affordable prices. And they have also added some very delicious cookies and pastries to the menu. Students already frequent this place along with expats who have heard about it through the grapevine. The décor is modest but comfortable, simple but cozy. Salim, with help from some friends, advertised their new venture by distributing flyers and menus to people at departmental stores and to tourists in the streets of Lazimpat and Thamel. In short, they did what they could and it has paid off.

In the two years since Sal’s has been open, the place has already initiated its bit at giving back to society. Every Saturday morning from half past nine to noon, Sal’s organizes a free movie-n-pizza time for young people. Most of the children who line up noisily in front of Sal’s are street children, some of whom, who used to live on the streets, are now associated with children’s’ welfare NGOs. The pizza and movie events are sometimes sponsored by various expats and friends of the restaurant, and sometimes Salim takes care of it himself.

Sal’s Pizza is a ‘cool place’, and the young Salim is a shining example of one boy’s journey off the streets into living a respectable life. The pizza parlor’s minimalist look allows you to focus on the food and on conversation, which is a good thing, since every bite of Sal’s pizza is somehow full of optimism, hope and positivity.

Utsav Shakya is a freelance writer and can be contacted at utsavshakya@gmail.com .
Tel: 9841.327.187.