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With $100 in his pocket, he moved to the U.S. from Mumbai, India, in 2001. Ten years later, he opened Raaga, the most acclaimed Indian restaurant in Santa Fe. And less than a decade after that, he out-cooked Food Network star Bobby Flay with a signature dish, chicken tikka masala.
When it comes to chef Pramod “Paddy” Rawal, the man and the legend are the same.
“Today’s win is for Santa Fe,” Rawal says during the episode of “Beat Bobby Flay” that aired on Feb. 2. “Their love lifted me out of tough times.”
Now, on a mostly empty and shuttered stretch of Old Santa Fe Trail, Rawal’s doors remain open five days a week. At Raaga-Go, the takeout-only joint he launched in fall 2018 after closing Raaga on the advice of his doctor, he is cooking for a pandemic-stricken City Different the same way he would in healthier times – and his tikka masala is as on point as ever.
The Raaga-Go menu is a tour de Rawal’s forces, including vegetarian appetizers and house specialties, tandoori and biriyani dishes, five kinds of naan, and a selection of curries that include makani, spinach, korma, vindaloo or kerala, with your choice of paneer, chicken, beef, shrimp or lamb. Rawal also offers three Thai dishes for those who find their tastes wandering further East: kee mao, or “drunken noodles” with bok choy, Napa cabbage and basil; pad Thai; and a green curry with broccoli, green beans and eggplant. An array of well-priced desserts features Rawal’s rasmalai, beloved from his Raaga days, as well as rice pudding and gulab jamun balls dunked in rose water syrup.
On a recent evening, the contents of a warm bag left by Dashing Delivery were testament to the power of takeout to refresh bored pantry-bound palates. Marveling at the luxury of candy-colored curries packed in Styrofoam and plastic, we unboxed and plated an array of complexly spiced contemporary Indian cuisine with nods to Santa Fe ingredients.
A pair of crusty potato-and-pea samosas were subtly flavored, made brighter by the accompanying sweet and tangy tamarind sauce and a bold mint chutney. Slightly charred cilantro naan is pounded flat with garlic in the middle, the green herbs radiating outward. Kurkuri bhindi is an okra dish for the okra-unsure, as well as seasoned lovers of the vegetable, as julienned pods are beguilingly battered, spiced and fried to a light crispness, and served with a sparky pico de gallo.
The spinach chaat is a standout: a simple-looking, yet revelatory, blend of lace-edged, flash-fried fresh greens, juicy diced tomatoes and spring onions tossed in a zingy raita yogurt dressing. This salad, made down the block from the Roundhouse, even comes with a political endorsement: In 2018, before he became Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s communications director, Tripp Stelnicki called the chaat “the sort of appetizer you inhale.”
A long list of spices makes the tikka masala sing: red mace, coriander, cumin, green and black peppercorn, green cardamom, and cumin and coriander seeds. Between the soft yogurt-marinated chunks of chicken, the creamy balm of the tomato sauce, and fork-tender slices of onions and red, yellow and green peppers, it’s a harmony of flavors and textures. We ordered it medium (most dishes can be ordered at four levels, between mild and “hell”) and, as one “Beat Bobby Flay” judge suggested, we might amp the heat level next time, but the floral spices still kept things interesting. In general, we ordered items at all levels and never found one dish too hot, which owes to Rawal’s dedication to using spices for flavor, not heat.
Rawal excels in the vegetarian realm. His baigan bharta, a Punjab dish based on his mother’s recipe, elevates roasted eggplant to a bright yellow, mystical blend of turmeric, onions and tomato. This wizardry with simple ingredients prompted me to order a copy of “The Raaga Cookbook: Modern Indian Cuisine,” a self-published tome Rawal released in 2015 that is available at the restaurant.
The vegan, gluten-free khatte chole boasts smoky chickpeas and small potatoes bathed in ancho chiles, pomegranate and ginger. Drizzled over perfectly cooked long-grain basmati rice, the garbanzos hit all five notes of Indian cuisine: sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and hot.
In Indian classical music, raagas are melodic frameworks that also consist of at least five notes – the rest depends on improvisation, or the musician’s ability to “color the minds” of the audience. (“Raaga” comes from Sanskrit, meaning to color, tinge or dye.) Gazing at a pair of empty, stained plates after one of Raaga-Go takeaway meals, I felt sated by the influence of both the chef’s careful framework and his striking improvisations.
“This one’s for you, Santa Fe,” Rawal beamed when he beat Bobby Flay – but he didn’t need to go on TV to convince us of his devotion to feeding his adopted hometown. His goodness comes straight to your door.
WHERE: 410 Old Santa Fe Trail, Unit A, 505-983-5555, raagatogo.com
HOURS: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 4-9 p.m.
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