As bad as COVID-19 has been to restaurants in general, it may have been even worse for those offering buffets.
Suddenly, the communal experience of standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow diners and sharing utensils over open containers of food took on the appearance of a superspreader event.
So does this much-loved dining tradition have a future in the post-pandemic world?
Apparently yes, judging by the scene at Taj Mahal, the longtime Indian restaurant on Carlisle.
During a recent lunch hour, a dozen or so diners crowded around the two buffet stations, spooning out curries and trapping fiery red chunks of tandoori chicken in tongs.
The small dining room was almost full. At the entrance to the kitchen, a crew of road workers wearing reflective vests picked up takeout orders.
The scene was a testament to Taj Mahal’s enduring popularity. Even after 15 years, Taj Mahal continues to draw diners to its home, a faintly pink building lined with mock columns near the Carlisle-Indian School intersection.
Taj Mahal specializes in Punjabi cuisine, from the northern part of India. Punjab was where the Indian tradition of cooking in a clay oven known as a tandoor started. A long way from the Indian Ocean, the region is known for dairy- and rice-based dishes such as saag paneer and biryani.
Taj Mahal’s menu cuts a pretty wide swath, with subsections devoted to chicken, seafood and vegetarian dishes. Prices are in line with other Indian restaurants in town. The menu items are listed in Hindi, so if you’re looking for butter chicken, don’t bother; on Taj Mahal’s menu, it’s called murg tikka makhani.
Among the more than a dozen appetizers, most coming in at under $5, is dahi bhalla ($3.95), a popular street food of northern India. In the takeout container, it looks like a big serving of plain yogurt, but under the surface lurk deep-fried lentil cakes that crumble easily, adding some texture to the mix of spices and chutney that register briefly as sweet before an enticing burn sets in.
Similarly, an entree of jehangiri kofta ($16.95) looks uninspiring at first sight, just a cup of putty-colored curry and cream sauce. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll find several minced lamb meatballs stuffed with cashews and raisins. The meatballs had none of the gaminess sometimes found in lamb and their rather leaden consistency was cut by the sweet and savory sauce.
Taj Mahal offers a variety of chicken specialties like murg saagwala ($15.95), boneless chunks of tandoori chicken nestled in a creamy curry sauce laden with spinach. The chicken was moist, and the sauce effectively tamped down the acidity of the spinach.
A highlight of the vegetarian entrees, baigan bhurta ($12.95) is made from eggplant baked, mashed and sauteed with onions, peas and tomatoes. It was served in a rich yellow curry sauce fragrant with garlic and ginger, and the peas still had some snap to them.
Two large pieces of garlic naan ($3.50) were an ideal complement to the entrees, leopard-spotted from the oven and just firm enough to scoop up the curry sauces. The order also came with a complimentary papadum, paper-thin lentil crackers that carried a little bit of heat.
The intriguing selection of desserts, all in the $5 neighborhood, include rice pudding and mango custard. Aam ka kamaal ($5.50) was a standout, the tangy mango puree matching beautifully with vanilla ice cream that had melted slightly by the time we got to it. Unfortunately, the pistachios promised on the menu did not make it into the dish.
I ordered online, and the food was ready in 20 minutes. The order came with three containers of basmati rice, more than enough to pair with the entrees.
Almost everything on the menu is gluten-free. There’s even a gluten-free alternative to the naan.
Taj Mahal’s longevity is a testament to its consistency. It stands at the top of Albuquerque’s Indian dining scene.