The menu at Tikka Hut, the new Indian fusion restaurant on Indian School, is both a travelogue and a history lesson.
It tells of ancient trade routes between India, Africa and the Middle East, and the resultant culinary cross-pollination that influenced each region’s cuisine. It’s a place where falafel mingles with chutney, the pizza sauce carries a hint of curry and the African-style pili pili chicken is flavored with tikka spices.
The culinary mashups on display here reflect the background of Hanif Mohamed, owner and operator of Tikka Hut’s two locations in Albuquerque. Mohamed grew up in Mombasa, an ancient port city on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast that was a regular stop for Arab and Indian traders.
He constructed Tikka Hut’s menu with chef Dennis Apodaca, formerly of Sophie’s Place, partly to demonstrate the Islamic influence on Indian cuisine. There are no curries on the menu, but the addictive spicy tomato sauce that underpins many of the dishes starts out that way before tomatoes are added at the last minute.
Mohamed and Apodaca launched the first Tikka Hut last year at One Central, the massive mixed-use complex that stands at the east end of Downtown like a drydocked ocean liner. That location reopened recently after COVID forced a temporary closure.
The Indian School spinoff debuted earlier this year in a building that originally housed an auto shop and gas station. Vestiges of the building’s original profile remain, like the outline of the two bay doors in front and the restrooms located on the side.
A spacious parking lot encircles the building and a shaded patio wraps around one corner. The dining area runs narrowly along the front side of the restaurant; the back side is given over to a large open kitchen dominated by the pizza ovens from former tenant Da Vinci’s Gourmet Pizza.
A complimentary chips-and-salsa/chutney bar provides a preview of the cross-cultural experience to come. Alongside the familiar salsa fresca are two chutneys: a fiery red one and a minty, vinegary green version. Next to the chips stands a self-serve machine that dispenses two varieties of aguas frescas.
A bowl of hummus ($5.69) served with pita triangles typifies Tikka Hut’s mix of the familiar and inventive. The silky texture and balance of garlic and nutty tahini is what you expect in a good hummus; the jolt of acid delivered by a pile of pickled cauliflower and the crunch from fried chickpeas sprinkled on top are a welcome surprise.
The same inventiveness turns up in a serving of Falafel ($5), three ground chickpea balls crisp and walnut-brown on the outside, vivid green and herbaceous on the inside. Tahini sauce is the common option with falafel, but Tikka Hut’s version matches it with two chutneys that sharpened the dull flavor of the fritters. The chutneys also boosted a serving of Pakoras ($6.99), a popular Indian street food made with veggies dipped in chickpea batter and fried. The onion version presented beefy slices of onion in a crisp yet airy coating, with little spurs of fried dough to hold onto when dipping into the chutneys underneath.
The plates here encourage sharing. Pili Pili Chicken ($8.99-$19.99), a dish of Portuguese-African origin that’s also called peri peri or piri piri, arrived chopped up on a tray with pita triangles, pickles and garlic sauce. The chicken is marinated in tikka spice, garlic, ginger and green chile, and then roasted and finished on the grill. It comes out with an almost blackened skin. The meat was moist and garlicky, and the spice rub left my tongue tingling.
Tikka Hut serves up a hefty pizza pies in 12- and 16-inch versions ($13.99-$19.99). You can also get them by the slice ($3.75-$5.25). Our meat version sported a crackling, bubbled rim browned from the oven. There was good balance between the cheese and a tomato sauce considerably more complex and spicier than your average marinara. The toppings of chicken tikka, beef kebobs and braised leg of lamb were excellent. Of note was the juicy and falling-apart tender lamb.
Tikka Hut also offers a variety of kebobs priced from $11.99 to $13.99. The proteins are also available in rolls, bowls, tacos and tostadas.
Leaving the dining room takes you past of display case of ice creams that Mohamed calls kulatos, a hybrid of gelato and kulfi, the Indian frozen dessert. Mohamed told me he harbored bad memories of eating almost impenetrably dense kulfi as a child, and with the kulatos he has exorcized those demons. The ice cream is as light as soft serve but even creamier and the flavors, including French vanilla and dulce de leche, are intense. My favorite was the mango. You’ll regret it if you don’t take some home.
Many of the items are gluten-free, including the pili pili chicken. There are vegetarian and halal options too. Mohamed has applied for a liquor license and hopes to be serving beer and wine within a month.
Tikka Hut’s mix of cuisines is unlike any other restaurant in the city. Almost everything is made in house and, more importantly, made well. It deserves to be noticed.