Thursday, September 30, 2010

Restaurant: Kabob Curry, Long Beach

9 out of 10 Peppers = Extra Spicy
Billing itself as the first Indian-Pakistani restaurant in downtown Long Beach, the newly opened Kabob Curry serves up delicious food at economical prices in a casual atmosphere.

The Details: There are so many things about Kabob Curry that appeal to my Indian sensibilities. First, when I saw that it offered the popular (yet elusive in the States) soda Thums Up, I could feel the giddiness overflowing in me like the bubbles in an excitedly shaken bottle of the sickly sweet classic Indian cola. Second, prices here are C-H-E-A-P. Even my dad would approve -- and this is the man who once tasked me with finding "a sit-down restaurant in Los Angeles where I can get lunch for under $5." Well, Dad, I finally found your place.

For $4.99 at Kabob Curry, you can get bhindi masala (okra), aloo matar (peas and potatoes), channa masala (chickpeas), or pretty much any other veggie dish. Or, if you show up between 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., you can choose between six combos -- ranging from $5.99 to $6.99 -- which all include bread, salad, and a soft drink.

So, Nick and I splurged (well, by Indian standards at least!). We got:

The aforementioned Thums Up. Nick insists it tastes like a Coke, but, while it is now owned by soda giant Coca-Cola, to me it's always tasted markedly different than an American Coke. Of course, before finding it at Kabob Curry, it had probably been a decade since I'd last tasted one. I've been to Atlanta's World of Coca Cola since then, but I don't think it's in the sample room. No matter, I can get my fix now.

Nick ordered a Keema Samosa. The appetizer comes with only one samosa (the menu did tell us that in advance) and ours was small in size, but Nick enjoyed it and said he'd order it again.

I ordered the Chicken Saag. I may be biased (ahem), but I really do love saag. And this dish of spinach and chicken was excellent. It doesn't come with rice, and I didn't order any, but basmati rice is available at $2.50 for one person or $3.99 for two.

I got the plain naan, partly because I scored a coupon for free naan from a woman across the street. Because the restaurant is new (it opened about a year ago in October 2009), she was handing out fliers with menus and the coupon. This naan is usually $1.25, but the restaurant also offers some unique stuffed naan items on the menu (stuffed with fillings like cauliflower or ground lamb) that I want to  try later. The naan took longer than the rest of our order to come out, which annoyed me, but it was toasty warm when it arrived.

Nick ordered the Chicken Tikka Roll. I love how convenient this dish is: it's boneless tandoori chicken with lettuce and kabob curry sauce all wrapped up in warm naan. It's like an exotic sub sandwich. Any takers?...Hello, Jared?

Two sauces -- a mint yogurt sauce and a sweet tamarind sauce -- were on each table. Since the condiments were in squeeze bottles (instead of the typical  Indian glass or clear plastic jars with the tiny spoons), it too make an unusual allusion to American sandwich shops. But I can't knock the convenience.

I ordered Kheer for dessert. It was super frothy and the rice grains looked almost pulverized into itty bitty granules, but taste-wise, it was awesome. It included a garnish of pistachios.

Next time, I'd like to try the Mango Ice Cream, because it's served on a tray with Himalayan Salt, the same kind the restaurant uses in its cooking and what apparently makes up these cool lamps (shown) that adorn the walls of the restaurant. Also, the restaurant is launching a weekend lunch buffet starting October 9, so I will have to go back and check that out too.

On the downside, you do need to remember to bring quarters for parking; the restaurant doesn't have its own lot. Also, there's a bizarre chandelier in the front entrance that looks out of place (and previous tenant's sloppy seconds, perhaps?). And do keep in mind that this restaurant is casual. Please promise me you won't take a date here, at least not a first date -- she may fall in love with the food, but probably not so much with you.

Has anyone else tried Kabob Curry yet? What do you think? If you try the lunch buffet before I do, please feel free to leave a comment about it below!

Kabob Curry, 108 West 3rd St., Long Beach 90802. (562) 49-KABOB.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review: NBC's Outsourced (From a Foodie Perspective)

I puff up with a sense of pride anytime I hear about a successful Indian person in the U.S., especially if said person is successful in a field that Indian-Americans aren't really known for. (This is probably one of the many reasons for the attraction to my teacher fiance.) I realize this pride is totally unjustified as I don't really have anything to do with that individual's success -- but still, inside, I think, "Yeah! Go you! Make a good name for us!"

So, when I heard that NBC was debuting a sitcom with a mostly Indian cast, I of course had to watch (chest puffed out). The comedy Outsourced, about a call center in India and the cultural differences between the Indian employees and the imported boss from the United States, debuted tonight. It's difficult for me to pass much judgment on the show itself -- pilot episodes always have so much scene setting and character building -- but I did have to make a few comments on the food scenes.

1. When fellow expatriate Charlie Davies is eating an all-American lunch, of a ham sandwich, Cheetos, and pudding cup in a cafeteria full of people eating Indian food, I just had to laugh. This reminded me of when I'd attend temple with my family, then finally, after way too many hours, lunch would eventually be served. But after all of the hours of Sanskrit prayers and flowers and offerings, I'd reached my daily limit on how much Indian culture I could handle in one day. I'd pick at the Indian food, finding the vegetarian options (meat isn't usually allowed in temples) and the spices to be, at that moment, simply unappetizing. Our mom would always have to fork over money so we could get lunch at McDonald's on the way home.

2. When Charlie makes a comment to American manager Todd Dempsey about the intestinal side effects of spicy Indian food, I empathized. Apparently, I was born missing the gene that lets Indians "appreciate" extreme spiciness (and by extreme spiciness, I mean, being able to eat food while tears are streaming down the face). Even as I purposely try to increase my spice tolerance, it hasn't been going that well. Let's just say, the tongue is willing, but the digestive tract is weak.

3. That mess of Indian food on the plate at the end was interesting. I'm not sure where the show was going with that, but to me, it beautifully illustrated the conundrum of Indian food. A curry is great, but a bunch of curries all spilling into each other on a plate just isn't pretty. God help you if you're one of those people who doesn't like it when your entree and your sides are touching each other on your plate.

Did anyone else catch Outsourced? What did you think?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ingredient: Mango

Having earned the distinction of being the National Fruit of India (sorry, jackfruit and lychee -- I know you really tried), mangoes are found in a variety of Indian dishes in both their ripe and unripe form, being the key ingredient in everything from sour chutneys to savory curries to, most importantly, fresh sweet desserts.

One of my earliest memories of mangoes isn't of actually eating one, it's of getting stopped at Atlanta-Hartsfield Jackson International Airport and being interrogated about them.

More specifically, I'd finally gotten back to the U.S. after my most recent India vacation and was feeling the kind of overwhelming exhaustion that only a trans-Atlantic multiple-time-zone-shift flight can cause. After a lengthy and confusing wait for my bag (embarrassingly, I didn't recognize it the first few times it spun around the carousel because it had so many airport destination stickers on it from my many stops), I was stopped on my way out by a customs agent who asked to check inside my suitcase. That would have been fine and well, except that I was so exhausted that I couldn't remember the stupid combination for the stupid combination lock that was holding it shut. (This was more than a decade ago, when air travelers could still lock checked bags.)

The agent started badgering me with questions, and all the while I'm fiddling with the lock and racking my brain to remember the combination. "Did you bring anything back with you that you need to declare?"
"No" Is it the numbers of my birth day?
"Did you bring back any live plants?"
"No" If it's my birthday, would it be the date or the year?
"Did you bring back any fruit?"
"No" 7-7, I think it had a 7.
"You're sure you didn't bring back any mangoes -- India is known for its mangoes."
"Yes, I'm sure." Oh my god, why can't I remember the combination.
"A lot of people bring back mangoes, you know."
"I don't have any mangoes." That's it. I will never get home.
"I need you to tell me if you brought back any mangoes."

The stunned agent looked me in the face, appeared to be in shock at my outburst (probably not much as I am, remembering it), and told me I was cleared to leave the airport.

Flash-forward 10 years later, and I guess I would have had a little more trouble with that customs agent today because I finally DO like mangoes. I can't really explain why I didn't like them as a teenager or through much of my 20s, though I think it may have been due to a lack of exposure. My parents, who were born and raised in India, ate mangoes on occasion but rarely ever offered them to us kids. Maybe they thought the fruit was too exotic? In my experience, it can also be hard to find good mangoes in regular grocery stores. The few times I've tried to buy the whole fruit, I usually wind up cutting into an unripe one -- which is fine is you're making a chutney but not so fine when you just want to enjoy a few juicy unadorned bites. These days, I typically get my fix with the already-diced kind, either fresh or frozen. (Trader Joe's has great Mango Chunks available in its freezer section.) Nick and I both love them.

How to Prepare:
Make sure you have a ripe mango by gently pushing its flesh. If it has a little give (similar to a ripe avocado), you should be good to go. Ripe mangoes also tend to be more naturally fragrant than unripe ones. As you're cutting it, keep in mind that there's a central pit that needs to be discarded. Rachel Rappaport at recipe blog Coconut & Lime has a great pictorial step-by-step that might be helpful.

Good Source Of: Fiber, Vitamins A and C, Copper, Potassium, Beta-Carotine

Found In: Mango Chutneys (sour or sweet), Amchur Powder, Mango Curries, Mango Rice, Mango Lassi*, Mango Milkshake*, Mango Custard*, Mango Kulfi, Mango Juice

* = a personal favorite

What are your personal favorite mango dishes? Feel free to share a recipe or recipe link in the comments section.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Restaurant: Ashoka the Great, Artesia

4 out of 10 Peppers = Mild
With unexpectedly spicy food (not in a good way), lackadaisical service, and average ambiance, Ashoka the Great falls into the world of average. Sorry, Ashoka, you may want to rename yourself Ashoka the Fair.

The Details: I wanted to love Ashoka the Great. I really did. I mean, in addition to the fact that it has "great" in the name, it's in a well-known foodie and cultural mecca that's been nicknamed "Little India". So, surely, it would be on par with some of the other excellent restaurants I've been to in Artesia...right? Sadly, no, the name is a misnomer, and the restaurant may want to invest in a branding expert to weigh in on whether "Ashoka the Fair" or "Ashoka the Average" has the better ring to it.

Our trip started out above average. Most restaurants in Artesia, including Ashoka, have the option of only street parking -- but we found a close free spot around the corner and, in general, I don't mind a short walk anyway. Upon entry, the restaurant was pretty crowded (especially for a Sunday night, so I was impressed), and I liked the artistic touch of the running water fountain that's just inside the door. We were seated promptly in a semi-circle-shaped booth -- the kind of booth that I'm an absolute sucker for as it lets Nick and I sit next to each other without having to rearrange the place settings to accommodate the fact that, given the chance, we always try sit next to each other anyway. (A trait that once called a restaurant owner to refer to us "love birds" as he graciously rearranged tables to accommodate us.) In addition to the the semi-circle booths against the wall, there are also six-tops and other size standard tables and chairs in the rest of the restaurant -- which are good for larger groups. There is also a small well-lit bar area in the back corner, where it looks like customers can stop in for a drink or two.

Nick was also thrilled because the two wall-mounted flatscreens were showing the football game. Now, I realize that some of you ladies out there may see this as a negative, but for me personally, I'd rather Nick be able to subtly watch the game while also listen (or at least, pretend to listen) to me -- rather than complain through our entire meal that he's missing the game and then spend every other minute looking up the scores on his phone.

Like many other Indian restaurants, Ashoka gives each table a complimentary order of Papadum to start. Unfortunately, as soon as I bit into it, I immediately started coughing uncontrollably -- this papadum was S-P-I-C-Y. Whew. Thankfully, the server had already brought out our waters, so I sipped mine and my coughing subsided. In addition to being unexpectedly spicy, I thought it was so hard as to taste stale. Nick, however, said he liked the papadum and that it was simply a different "style" of the popular dish. He may well be right, but if you're not used to this style, I say: be ready for spice and keep your water nearby.

We also had an order (two pieces) of the Keema Samosas -- ground meat-filled turnovers (one of Nick's favorite dishes). The samosas were fine, albeit a little burnt/overcooked.

I ordered a Mango Lassi, and the drink was great. Thankfully, I've yet to find a place that can mess this up -- though if I ever do I'll probably have to have a moment of silence to mark the sad occasion.

For our breads, Nick was so excited that Ashoka offered Poori -- a deep-fried puffy bread -- on the menu. For whatever reason, poori is hard to find at restaurants so anytime we come across it, Nick insists on ordering it. His mom actually gave me her recipe for poori, so that I can make it for him more often. Sadly, I haven't made it yet as I'm not as big of a fan as he is -- though he "told" on me last time we were hanging out with his mom, so I think I'm now on the hook to share the recipe on saagAHH, which will force me to make it. He definitely liked his poori. We also ordered naan, which came out fine.

For his main dish, Nick ordered the Butter Chicken, described on the menu as chicken tandoored in a clay oven and cooked in butter, yogurt, and tomato gravy. The serving size was large, which was a plus, but like the papadum, it was unexpectedly spicy. Come to think of it, I don't think our server ever asked us what spiciness level we wanted with any of our dishes. That's a little odd.

I decided to go vegetarian with my entree and got the Paneer Masala. Again, I just found it to be average. I generally love all kinds of cheese, including paneer (an un-aged Indian cheese) but I thought the paneer was too hard and that the flavor was off.

Regarding the service, our busser didn't speak good English so when I asked her if I could get a take-out menu (for my records, not because I'm planning on ordering take-out from here), it definitely got lost in translation as she brought me back the dinner menu. This was probably my fault though, as I should have reminded our server about it -- I'd asked him about 20 minutes before, he hadn't brought it yet, and I couldn't find him at the time. The service also got worse and worse throughout our meal, finally culminating in the fact that we searched for our server for at least 25 minutes when we were ready to pay the bill.

All in all, I say definitely don't go here if it's your first time eating Indian food. I don't want it to turn you off of the cuisine. But on the plus side, it is inexpensive for a sit-down restaurant (even the seafood curries are only $9.99), the portions are large, and there's plenty of space, so it's an option for a family dinner for diners who aren't too picky.

Does anyone have a "great" story to share about the restaurant? Was your service experience better than ours?

Ashoka the Great, 18614 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, CA 90701. (562) 809-4229.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Restaurant: Radhika, South Pasadena

8 of 10 Peppers = Spicy
An intimate restaurant with a stylish decor, the newly reenvisioned Radhika makes a great date restaurant, complete with courteous service, above-average food, and a convenient location.

The Details: Two days before the school year was about to begin, my fiance (a teacher) was having a pre-school crisis. This is similar to a mid-life crisis but on a smaller scale. Terrified of the imminent loss of his freedom by a classful of boisterous 7th- and 8th-graders, Nick insisted we go on one last "adventure" before summer officially ended. We couldn't afford to go out of town for the long Labor Day weekend (the downside of wanting the huge Indian wedding), so we hopped on the light rail instead -- and decided to see where the night would take us.

We lucked out by making a stop at the newly opened Radhika in South Pasadena. We discovered later that the restaurant had previously been located in a less-walk-in friendly location in the city of Pasadena and had moved and reopened its doors four months ago -- in this pedestrian-friendly spot immediately outside Mission Station.

Maybe not an adventure in the traditional sense -- no 911 calls or explosions or even drunken diners -- Radhika was in its own way a culinary adventure for us because of its modern take on Indian cuisine. "We're trying to get away from saag and daal and really do things differently," said Kiran*, the owner, as he made his rounds. "I think people are ready for that." He added that the foods that need to be authentic will stay authentic, but for much for the menu, Indian spices will be used in inventive ways.

We sat in a window seat and the atmosphere was lovely for a date -- cozy low-level lighting, blue walls, Indian music, and other subtle touches like custom-made light fixtures with an Indian scrollwork-inspired design. The space is also comfortable for small groups of friends, as there's a red striped banquette against a wall and tables for groups of two and four on the outdoor patio.

The food here was above-average, though I wouldn't classify it as spectacular (hence, the 8 peppers instead of 10). We had:

Nick ordered a Taj Mahal beer, which came in a cool logoed glass, and I ordered a Rose Lassi. The lassi was delicious. The restaurant also has a Mango Lassi on its menu, which is usually a safe bet at any Indian restaurant, but I can't promise I'll ever try it here as I'm really craving another rose-flavored one. The rose scent reminded me of Indian desserts like kulfi and sandesh.

For his entree, Nick ordered the Chicken Tikka Masala -- one of our standbys. Here's where I thought the food started to fall a little flat. It was good, but it lacked the sweet and nuanced flavor that I expect in a great tikka masala sauce.

I had the Kerala Fish Curry, described on the menu as a white fish and coconut curry topped with succulent pineapples. It was hard to tell which pieces were fish and which were pineapple due to all of the sauce -- but I do give Radhika props for incorporating fruit into the dish. (I'm a big fan of the all-in-one entree.) This dish was just OK. I'm not yet an expert on identifying all spices within a dish, but the spices were overpowering in this one.

Like many restaurants, the rice had to be ordered separately. It's $4 here and was plenty for two people.

We also split an order of naan, which was yummy. The portion size was fine for us, but if you're a big naan fan (or just not of the sharing persuasion) you may want an order for each person.

The other adventurous aspect of Radhika is it's about to expand to incorporate a tapas lounge in the adjacent space -- that's right, folks, Indian tapas! I am so excited. As much as I love food, I frequently don't have the stomach space to finish a full-size entree so I love tapas as I can taste a bit of everything. The tapas portion is scheduled to open in about a month -- I will have to go back after mid-October.

Have you been to Radhika yet--what do you think of it? For any long-time fans, how does it compare to its former Pasadena location? And, who else is excited about the tapas lounge?

Radhika, 966 Mission St., South Pasadena 91030. (626) 799-2200.

*Not sure if I spelled Kiran's name correctly, as I didn't want to ask and blow my cover.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Your First Time (Eating Indian Food)

One question I get asked a lot is, "What should I order?"

My best response is: If you haven't ever had Indian food before, try a buffet. Most Indian restaurants offer them daily for lunch (and on Sundays, many even offer brunch, including champagne -- not an Indian beverage, but a welcome addition nonetheless) and they range in price from about $8 to $15. They typically offer some of the most common Indian foods, usually including a few veggie dishes (like saag, the curried greens dish this blog is named after), meat dishes (like tandoori chicken and chicken or lamb curries), rice, and a dessert or two.

If you can't make it to a buffet and are ordering off of a menu, here's what I recommend:

[appetizer] samosa: a fried pyramid-shaped turnover that's stuffed with any number of flavorful fillings. (There are typically multiple samosa options listed separately on an Indian menu, one for each of the restaurant's filling choices.) One of my favorites is a cauliflower samosa. Some of the more common options include potato samosas and ground lamb samosas.

[entree] tikka masala: a curry sauce that is yummy to the American palette because it's tomato based and slightly sweet. Like samosas, the word "tikka masala" can be preceded by any number of descriptive words -- chicken tikka masala, mushroom tikka masala, tofu tikka masala, etc. -- and that choice is up to you.

[side] naan and/or rice: naan is a soft Indian flatbread that's traditionally cooked in a tandoor oven. It looks a lot like pita bread. I'd recommend either an order of plain naan or garlic naan. As far as rice goes, the rice served in Indian restaurants is typically white basmati rice, a nutty long-grain rice. Either naan or rice is handy for soaking up the sauces that will likely be all over your plate. If only getting one, I'd opt for the naan.

[beverage] mango lassi: a chilled yogurt drink that's flavored with mangoes (and looks it -- it's mango orange in color). There are usually multiple lassi options on a menu, and I tend to like any of the sweet ones (strawberry, banana, rose). Even though it's more traditional, I'd steer you away from the plain one unless you really like unflavored yogurt and the salty one unless, well, unless you really like salt.

[dessert] kheer: Similar to American rice pudding but usually a thinner consistency, kheer is a sweet milky dish that's typically seasoned with cardamom and saffron.

Also, the server may bring you a complimentary order of papadom (also known as pappar), a super thin crispy Indian bread made from lentil flour. It resembles tortilla chips and, like tortilla chips, is easy to devour absentmindedly if it's sitting in front of you. Regarding the various sauces he may bring out with it (usually a mint sauce and a spicy sauce), I typically don't bother using those as I think papadom tastes better plain.

After you've had your first Indian meal, and fallen in love with the cuisine (I hope), definitely come back to saagAHH for info on the best places to put your newly enriched palette to the test. By the way, all of the above recommendations are for North Indian cuisine, which is the most common kind in U.S. restaurants and the kind I'm most familiar with. However, if you do find yourself in a South Indian restaurant (you'll know if any of the above items are missing from the menu), then go for a dosa, an Indian "crepe" (made from lentils) -- and fill it with whatever fillings you like best (potatoes dosas are one of most popular). Happy eating and let me know how it goes!

So, for all of you Indian food veterans out there, how did I do? What other recommendations would you have for first-timers?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Why This Blog?

I'm the one on the right.

Online reviews are so important to me. Be it for movies, hotels, museums, or pretty much anything else, I always study them ahead of time to see what I'm getting into. These days I buy so many items on that when I go into an actual brick-and-mortar store, I feel paralyzed because I don't know enough about the product I'm about to buy. What if this adorable apron fades after the first wash? Is this brand of canned tomatoes better or that one -- and will it make a difference in the dish I'm making? Does the "new car smell" air freshener really smell like a new car?

These might not be the world's most important questions, but, as a savvy spender, they mean the world to me. I get so frustrated when I spend my hard-earned money on something, only to find out I need to replace it/go somewhere else/cry because it wasn't what I expected (hello, alarm clock that only works when plugged in and NOT with batteries -- a very bad thing to find out overseas where the standard voltage is different).

So, what am I an expert on? That was the question I posed to my fiance, Nick. After pausing for a few minutes and very sweetly resisting the urge to say something sarcastic, like "sleep" (which would have been accurate) , he said "Indian restaurants." Then, he added that he'd be willing to go with me to review Indian restaurants all over Southern California, where we live.

His ulterior motive aside (we both love Indian food), I agreed that, at least when it came to being a food connoisseur, about the only two things I can claim expertise in are Indian food and red velvet cake. Figuring I'd best leave the red velvet cake blog to someone in the South, this Indian restaurant review blog -- saagAHH -- was born.

Why saagAHH?

saagAHH is my pun-iness coming out: "Saag" is the name of one of my favorite Indian dishes, a curry made from greens (usually spinach, mustard greens, and/or fenugreek leaves). "AHH" was originally meant to refer to "open up and say 'AHH'" but in the evolution of this blog I'm sure will refer to the sweet sigh of "'AHH'...what a satisfying meal" and the panic of "'AHH' get this 'food' off of my plate." Plus, the complete "saga" of my day-to-day life is sure to come out one way or the other on here. My fiance and I are getting married next year, and with several headstrong South Asian parents in the picture, I'm sure there will be more of a saga and more drama (in a good way, I hope) in the days to come.

Why all of the mentions of my fiance?

In addition to giving me the idea for the blog, Nick been playing a large role in getting me to embrace my Indian heritage. The funny thing is I always thought I'd marry a white guy, but then I fell in love with someone who's South Asian -- his ethnicity is Nepali -- and Hindu like me. The other funny thing is that his true first name is "Neeraj," which he likes to claim is his preferred name for introducing himself to Indian woman that he'd like to date (it impresses us, apparently), but since we met online (at and he'd already listed his profile name as the Americanized "Nick," I call him by an un-Asian sounding name, whereas plenty of people still refer to him Neeraj.

He's also great to have around during restaurant visits, because he'll help keep this blog real. When I told him I was a little apprehensive about saying something negative about someone else's Indian cooking, he replied, "Just quote me: I'll tell you if the food tastes like the dirt on my cleats."
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