SANTA FE, N.M. — I have never been to India, nor have had much desire, unless in a linen suit, lugging golf clubs. It has been a popular destination for spiritual “seekers” over the centuries, where many pick up new names and old parasites, either of which might last a lifetime. (My guru is still Yogi Berra, so we’ll leave it at that.)
I do love the cuisine of India, and when I get in the zone for it, I head over to India House on Cerrillos Rd., next to Auto Zone.
I love India House. The stated mission of the ownership and chef Kewal Singh Dhindsa is “to serve delicious affordable food that guests will want to return to week after week.” They do, and have, since 1992, and in honor of the imminent Indian elections, I headed over on a recent afternoon with a pal who has a daughter named India.
The weekday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. lunch buffet, as much as you’d like for $14.95, has always been a personal favorite and the jam-packed parking lot, spilling into Auto Zone’s, indicates I ain’t the only one.
India House is umbrous, sedate and near-elegant for such a high-volume lunch-time crowd. Linen tablecloths and napkins, brisk, efficient table service and a sizeable buffet selection.
Indian cuisine is only about 8,000 years old, powerfully shaped by region and religion, influential to and influenced by just about every culture and region on earth. It got around, as it were, and has even found room for the chutneys introduced by the English housewives of the Raj. The staples are chiefly rice, flour, lentils, beans, chilis and peppers of all types, peanut oil, turmeric, cumin, yogurt, garlic. Whew, you name it. All those exotic spices that the likes of Christopher Columbus were after.
This day, we started off with some onion pakoras, lightly spiced fritters fried in garbanzo bean batter, that were light, not oily, and good. So, too, the Aloo Saag, a creamy dish of potatoes cooked with spinach, and the Dal Makhani, creamed lentils
The Chicken Tandoori is superb – a tandoor is a tall, cylindrical, clay, charcoal-fired oven in which meats bake, roast and grill simultaneously – juicy tender chicken pieces tenderized at India House in a mix of organic yogurt, garlic, turmeric and garam masala.
(It must be noted that garam masala is an elemental ingredient in Indian cuisine. A quintessential force in the culinary world, it’s a blend of spices – peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf, cumin, coriander, cardamom, fennel and nutmeg.)
The Chicken Makhani, or “butter chicken,” a variation on chicken masala prepared with peanut oil, butter, yogurt, cayenne peppers, turmeric, cumin, half and half, and garlic, is not too spicy and excellent. The real surprise hit of the afternoon was the Shrimp Jalfarazi, or jalfrezi, a curry dish of stir-fried meat, fish or vegetable – shrimp, in this case – served in a thick spicy sauce featuring green chile, peppers, mango pickles, onions and tomatoes … wow! The taste combos are vivid, colorful and intense. Not for wimps.
We don’t eat as much as we used to, or probably should, so we had to go back for more and a bit of the Beef Kofta Curry, little meatballs fried in oil and cooked in a mild curry. Excellent.
A superb feast at a superb value. The only complaint is that the rice this day was a bit hard and dry, and how easy is that to remedy? Very. I know it’s only a side, but Nirvana is found in the details, and the side dishes, as Yogi Berra always said.
One more thing: I got a ton of grief a while back for giving grief to uppity waiters in upscale restaurants. People took offense.
Another word of advice: Get over it.
Now, a friend sends an article from somewhere, written by a waiter, entitled “How To Get Good Service in a Restaurant.” Huh? Evidently, showing up ready to pay good money for a meal is not enough to be entitled to “good service.”
I am reminded of the words of a character in some Ibsen play: “These are the sorts of attitudes that turn society into a hospital.”