The remarkable breadth of Indian cuisine is a reflection of its landscape and history.
The vast subcontinent yields a diverse bounty, from the dairy-centric north and its yogurt, ghee and paneer to the coconut milk and rice of the sultry coastal regions.
The Indian people reimagined the possibilities of the chiles, tomatoes and potatoes brought in by traders and colonizers. They adopted the cone-shaped clay oven called tandoors from Central Asian nomads.
The result is one of the world’s most vibrant cuisines, a feast for the senses characterized by vivid colors and fragrances, intense flavors and searing heat.
Taste of India, the three-year-old restaurant in the Northeast Heights, nicely captures that vibrancy. Set back and slightly downhill from Juan Tabo in a long strip mall, it’s the kind of place you might see when driving and make a mental note to visit and then forget about it completely.
That would be a shame, because Taste of India turns out some terrific food.
Inside on a recent Saturday night, the dining room looked forlorn, as dining rooms tend to look these days. Steam table pans stood empty and idle along one side of the room, waiting patiently for the day when the lunch buffet will return.
The action behind the small counter next to the kitchen entrance was more reassuring. Two staffers took turns answering the frequently ringing phone and organizing the takeout orders coming out of the kitchen.
Taste of India’s menu is divided into starters, curries, and items cooked in the tandoor oven. There are vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. The prices, ranging from $12 to $16 for most entrées, are virtually identical to those of Taaj Palace, the Indian restaurant a block south on Eubank.
Some assembly is required for an appetizer of pani puri ($5.99), seven pieces of fried dough as hollow as a ping pong ball. Eating them is a three-step process. You crack open the shell, spoon in some diced potatoes and add a bit of flavored water that looks and tastes like a weak beef broth. Then you pop the whole construction in your mouth, and the delicate shell shatters and disappears into the starchy, slightly spicy filling.
Chaat papri ($6.99), a stew of boiled chickpeas and potatoes, makes for a more compelling starter. The base of yogurt and tamarind chutney is sour, tangy and sweet, with crisp fried dough wafers and thin, crunchy noodles called sev along to add some crunch. It’s like an entrée and a dessert in one dish.
The potato and pea-based filling in the vegetable samosas (two for $3.99) looks and tastes like a Thanksgiving stuffing. You’ll want to liven it up with one of the three chutneys that come with the meal. The mango chutney, sweet and blazing hot, works particularly well here.
Taste of India turns out a competent version of tandoori chicken ($13.99), perhaps the most familiar staple of Indian restaurants. The marinated chicken legs and thighs, burnished red with food coloring, come out of the clay oven with a slightly crisp exterior over moist and flavorful meat.
The curries that occupy one whole side of the menu are the things that will bring you back to Taste of India. Veg korma ($12.99), a thick, pale orange curry made by braising vegetables in spicy yogurt-based sauce, has little heat but a complex spice profile. Taste of India’s version comes with green beans, carrots, peas and potatoes. Just the thing to wrap in torn-off pieces of garlic naan flatbread ($2.99).
Meals come with complimentary sheet of papadum, a paper-thin lentil cracker that’s dried then dropped in hot oil to produce a bubbled surface. It has a surprising kick of heat that lingers pleasantly on the tongue.
The food was ready about 30 minutes after I ordered and pickup proceeded without a hitch until I got home and discovered that the mango custard dessert I had ordered did not make it into the bag. Portion sizes were generous, especially the long-grained basmati rice that provided a foundation for the leftover veg korma I heated up the next day.
Taste of India lives up to its name, offering a cross-section of dishes that provides a window into the remarkably diverse cuisine of India.
ON THE SIDE
BOXING BEAR BREWING CO.
12501 Candelaria NE
Boxing Bear serves as a reminder that these are good times for beer drinkers. The Tramway taproom serves old standbys, such as Chocolate Milk Stout and Black and Blue Tart, alongside a few seasonal offerings. Prices run from $1.75 for a 4-ounce sample to $6.50 for a 20-ounce pour. For $8, you can get a flight of five 4-ounce pours.
The food menu at the new location is currently limited to a few appetizers and six varieties of pizza.
The eminently shareable giant pretzel ($10), served with ramekins of queso and mustard, highlights the appetizer menu. Boxing Bear also offers a meatless Frito pie appetizer ($6) with red chile pinto beans. Boxing Bear’s pizzas, priced from $9 for the Classic Cheese to $13 for the Meat Lovers or the Chicken Artichoke, are proof that you don’t have to go to a pizzeria to get a good pie.
Boxing Beer turns out some of the best beers in the region. The good food is a bonus.
GUAVA TREE CAFÉ
6110 Alameda NE
Guava Tree’s menu reflects the South American and Caribbean island roots of husband-and-wife owners Diego Barbosa and Maricarmen Pijem. Cuban sandwiches share the menu with arepas, cornbread rounds popular in Colombia and Venezuela. Prices are reasonable, with most items checking in at under $10
Guava Tree brings first-rate ingredients and preparation to sandwiches such as the iconic cubano, made with pork, ham and Swiss cheese. The pernil ($9.35) is a slight variation of this, filled with chopped, slow-roasted pork shoulder, caramelized onions and Swiss cheese with garlic mayonnaise on Cuban-style bread that’s crispy on the outside and soft in the middle.
The tropical juices on the menu ($5.25 for a 20-ounce serving) are mixed with either water or milk and blended with ice like smoothies.
— Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal