Thursday, March 31, 2011

Restaurant: The India Restaurant, Artesia

My personal go-to Indian restaurant, I give The India Restaurant my highest recommendation.

10 out of 10 Peppers = Extra Spicy 

The Details: Conversations about The India Restaurant generally start like this.

Them: "You're Indian, right? [sometimes that part is internal] What Indian restaurant do you recommend?"
Me: "The India Restaurant on Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia."
Them: "OK, great. But what's the name of it?
Me: "It's called 'The India Restaurant.'"
Them: "What? Can you spell that?"

Yes, friends, the restaurant is literally called "The India Restaurant." No "Bombay" this or "Tandoori" that. Just direct and to the point. Imagine if only everything could be named so simply. What would all the pretentious snobs do with themselves?

If I were to suggest a name change for this place, I'd recommend that it be referred to as THE India Restaurant, because, it is THE place to go to for Indian food.

I've given out 10 Peppers before, and I hope to again, but this restaurant holds a special place in my heart because it was the first Indian restaurant where I ate upon moving to Los Angeles five years ago. I went on a friend's recommendation, and since then I've shared the recommendation with many other friends. I've yet to meet someone who doesn't love the food. I generally make it a point to try out new restaurants as often as possible, but when I'm in Artesia this really is my go-to. Don't get me wrong--there are lots of great restaurants in L.A.'s de facto Little India, and I do encourage you to venture out. But if you haven't been here yet, don't wait any longer.

On this particular day, it was lunchtime -- so the best choice then is definitely the lunch buffet.

But before the buffet, Nick really wanted Keema Samosas. There are appetizers on the buffet, but no samosas. I like these, but I think the buffet ($10.95 a person) holds its own without them. Nick, however, orders keema samosas pretty much everywhere we go. It's all good though. These are yummy.

Fresh naan is brought to the table.

The buffet includes a simple salad bar, some fruit options, about 12 entrees, and 4 desserts.

The meat entrees are disproportionally chicken, which is a bit of a bummer, but at least they are all delicious (including Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Curry, and Chicken Makni). This particular day they also had a lamb entree, though some days they switch that out with fish. There were about 5 vegetarian entree options. There are also pakoras, rice, and daal.

On this day, I sampled two of the desserts (I feel so guilty writing that). The Kheer (left) is a delicious rice pudding. The Fruit Cream (right) had a delicious cream, but the fruit tasted like it was from a can. My real favorite dessert here is the Carrot Pudding. I love it. It was on the buffet that day, but it's just so rich that I wasn't in the mood for it. (Plus, typing "I sampled three desserts" would really be humiliating for me.)

The first time I went to The India Restaurant I went for dinner, for which they don't offer a buffet. I honestly don't remember what I ordered that first time, but one of their dinner entrees from separate visit does stick in my head. The Mushroom Masala. That masala sauce was lick-the-plate good. Even Nick, who is usually disappointed when I order a vegetarian entree for sharing, admitted that this dish was excellent.

Service here is generally good. I've never had a problem. There is sometimes a wait for a table. One time, there was a disgusting toilet issue in the bathroom, but I let an employee know and I'm pretty sure that was a one-time problem.

Parking is free. The restaurant shares the Ziba parking lot (there are spaces both in the front and the back of the building), plus the street parking is free (at least for 2 hours, I believe).

Have you been to The India Restaurant? Do you love it as much as I do?

The India Restaurant, 17824 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 860-5621. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Restaurant: Mahan Indian Restaurant, Alhambra

Similar to the downtown region it's in, it's hit-and-miss at Mahan -- though, if you're in the area, I'd feel comfortable recommending it for the occasional Indian dinner.
7 out of 10 Peppers = Spicy

The Details: Nick and his brother Bobby have regular dinners together every Sunday. Sometimes when I'm in Pasadena for the day I'm invited along. I imagine it's quite the change of pace for them -- instead of talking about sports and current events, they get to hear me babble on about food and whatever else I babble on about (sometimes I'm not even sure). On the plus side, whereas Nick and Bobby are both creatures of habit and eat at the same five or so restaurants every week, I occasionally inspire them to venture out. Both seem to get a kick out of helping me with my Indian restaurant reviews, so this particular Sunday it was Bobby who suggested we go to neighboring Alhambra to check out Mahan Indian Restaurant.

Mahan is located in downtown Alhambra, which feels like a half-empty Old Town Pasadena. Whereas Old Town Pasadena is a bustling retail district, downtown Alhambra has some really nice blocks of retail and restaurants but then has a mostly-abandoned mall and many empty storefronts. It was a weird juxtaposition. Of course, Old Town Pasadena has experienced periods of decline too, so I'd be interested to see how downtown Alhambra fares in the next several years and wonder if it'll be able to stage a comeback.

Inside Mahan, Indian music was playing, large framed Indian wall hangings were on the wall as focal points, and nice chandeliers (that didn't weren't Indian-themed though) hung from the ceiling.

Instead of the usual free papadum (it's 2 pieces for $1 here), the restaurant offers something that I can best liken to Indian French fries. This is the first time I've seen this appetizer. The server called it something that sounded like "Marty" but I may have that spelled totally wrong. (If you know what it is, feel free to leave me a comment.) They tasted like they were made of besan (chickpea flour). They were quite good, and it was a cool change from the typical papadum.

Service was definitely on the slow side (though weirdly the server was on top of refilling our water glasses, so maybe they were having some sort of kitchen issue), so much so that we'd forgotten we'd ordered Chicken Pakoras by the time this appetizer arrived. These were yummy, though a little too spicy. It made me think of an Indian take on popcorn chicken.

When our Mahan Mixed Grill came out, wow, it was seriously sizzling. My camera even captured the sizzle coming off of this dish. It included chicken tikka, tandoori chicken, and lamb sheekh kabob. The only bummer was the other items in our order didn't come out for quite a while afterwards.

Nick wanted nothing to do with the Pumpkin Curry on the menu, but he was outvoted by Bobby and me. I love concocting savory pumpkin dishes like pumpkin enchiladas, mixing pumpkin puree with instant vanilla pudding and pumpkin pie spice to make an oh-so-easy dessert, and, not to forget, baking my Chai Spiced Pumpkin Pie. Unfortunately, this pumpkin curry was an ingenious idea that was poorly executed. It didn't even taste like pumpkin. It tasted like potatoes, which it had way too many of. The only tip off that it even contained pumpkin was the orange-tinge. This experience made me decide that I'm going to come up with my own pumpkin curry recipe (stay tuned).

I'm not a big Raita person. It's an Indian style yogurt, but it's typically too sour for my taste. Mahan's was refreshing. I still wouldn't personally order it, but if you're a raita fan, go for it. Bobby loves raita and felt the yogurt was good but would have preferred thicker cucumber pieces.

The rice here was better than usual. It had great flavor -- saffron perhaps?

What's your favorite non-traditional curry?

Mahan Indian Restaurant, 110 W Main St., Alhambra 91801. (626) 458-6299.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Restaurant: Himalayan Grill, Huntington Beach

Focusing mostly on Indian cuisine (with a few Nepalese and Tibetan options), the food at this serene Huntington Beach restaurant is delicious.
9 out of 10 Peppers = Extra Spicy
The Details: Himalayan Grill enveloped me in a sense of calm. I'm not sure whether it was the water feature at the entry, the hanging Tibetan prayer flags, or the soothing music playing in the background, but I was thankful to eat here after an especially hectic day. Also calming was the fact that, perhaps courtesy of the fact that the restaurant is in Orange County, there's actually ample free parking. On this Monday night, Nick and I met up with two friends, Kiair and Neena, for dinner.

The restaurant bills itself as having food from India, Nepal, and Tibet, but the vast majority of dishes are from India. Only six entrees (all noodle dishes) are classified as Tibetan/Nepalese on the menu. If you're looking for a place that has more dishes from Nepal and Tibet, then I'd recommend Tibet Nepal House in Pasadena instead. But if you're looking for delicious Indian food, this is definitely your place.

The free Papadum came with a mango chutney, which is a nice upgrade from the usual mint or tamarind sauces.

There is one Nepalese appetizer available and, lucky for Nick, it is his favorite: Meat Momos. These are steamed dumplings filled with ground chicken and mixed vegetables. They were yummy but I must warn you, they had a kick. These momos are spicier than they usually would be at other restaurants.

Entrees here are served family style, and the four of us shared them. First out was the Tandoori Chicken, which was literally sizzling. As I've mentioned before, I use tandoori chicken as a barometer for Indian restaurants, and in this case, the meat was perfectly juicy. My only critique would be that I could have done without all the cilantro. Neena said she could have done without so much salt.

Nirvana Chicken is my exciting new Indian food discovery. (Maybe it's weird that I'm still discovering new Indian dishes after 28 years? Still, I am thankful for this find.) It reminds us of chicken tikka masala, but with coconut flavor. It's described on the menu as as boneless chicken tikka marinated in spice and yogurt and cooked with coconut and cream sauce. Everyone loves this sauce.

Of course, I love virtually anything with saag (spinach), the blog's namesake, and the Saag Aloo at Himalayan Grill was no exception. To be honest, I'm not usually a fan of the aloo (potato) part, but this dish was truly delicious. There was some unique spice in the background that we couldn't quite place, but my best guess is cinnamon

Neena and I were both excited to find that the Tandoori Roti, a bread baked in the tandoor oven, was made with whole wheat flour. Yay for a bit of a healthy twist! (You can also see Nick's Yeti beer in the background of this shot, always a great accompaniment to a South Asian meal.)

Rice had to be ordered separately, so we ordered the staple Basmati Rice to share. It's $2.95. The restaurant also offers biryanis (saffron-flavored rice dishes that have bits of veggies and/or meat or seafood thrown in; it's like the Indian answer to Chinese fried rice), starting at $11.95.

All in all, the food here is exceptionally great. Nick and I had gone here once before about two years ago, before I had this blog, and the food this time was even better than I remembered. I took off a pepper for the service (slow) and because the bathroom is far (aggravating -- it's a shared bathroom with neighboring businesses, so you have to leave the restaurant to wash your hands). Oh, and according to the restaurant's website, there's another branch of this restaurant -- in Flagstaff, Ariz. So, if you somehow found this blog and you're in Flagstaff, please do leave a comment below to let us know if the Arizona restaurant is just as good!

What's your favorite restaurant for Nepalese and Tibetan food?

Himalayan Grill, 16400 Pacific Coast Hwy., #110, Huntington Beach 92649. (562) 592-9080.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Restaurant: Tantraz, Silver Lake

Tantraz doesn't have the best Indian food, but this special occasion Indian restaurant scores peppers for its creativity, customer service, unique decor, and club nights. Fellow blogger TikiChick explores it with me.

7 out of 10 Peppers = Spicy

The Details: In Southern California, there are literally hundreds of Indian restaurants. I know this well, because Nick and I did the research before I embarked on this blogging adventure. (Well, Nick did the research anyway. He is way better at estimating than I am. My original analysis was, "Babe, there's only, like, 10 Indian restaurants in Los Angeles." As a rebuttal, teacher that he is, he had me recite the names of the ones I'd already been to...yeahhh, there was at least 20 restaurants right there, and turns out that doesn't even scratch the surface.) Of these hundreds, there are no more than 10 (I got it right this time!) that are "special occasion" restaurants. Some of the ones that spring to mind are Tanzore, Chakra Cuisine, Electric Karma, and Tantraz: The Art of Indian Cuisine, subject of this blog post, in Silver Lake.

I lucked out because for this review, my friend and fellow blogger TikiChick and her boyfriend joined Nick and me. It's really great to go out with someone else who, like me, is constantly blurting out "Don't eat that yet! I need a picture!" in the middle of otherwise sane conversations. She also understands the value of experiencing as many things as possible on the menu, so she's generous with sharing food off of her plate. Her boyfriend, frequently referred to as Mr. Baseball on her blog and I won't blow his cover here, is also a great sport (pun intended, yes I'm a dork) and he and Nick were able to talk their hearts out about baseball, while TikiChick and I discussed the food.

Tantraz doesn't have the best Indian food, but it doesn't have to. What it has going for it are creativity, excellent customer service, a unique decor (TikiChick loved it; it was a little too bank-vault-esque for me, but again, I give it creativity points), and apparently has club nights with a live DJ and dancing (which I may have to go back and check out sometime). The customer service started from the minute my reservation request phone call was returned, when the employee took the time to ask me, "Are you celebrating something special?" (On a negative note, the restaurant is no longer on OpenTable, so when I first tried to make a reservation at 3 a.m. when I finally got some spare time, I wasn't able to do so. But my phone call was returned within a few hours.) I'm pretty sure the restaurant is open for only dinner, and I'd definitely recommend getting a reservation on weekends at least.

So, on to the food:

Once I saw TikiChick with a stylish Mango Lassi with a cherry on top, I of course had to order one for myself. I am so glad I did. This may be the best mango lassi I've ever had; it tasted really authentic and had a perfect balance of flavors.

Nick and I arrived after TikiChick and Mr. Baseball, so the complimentary Papadum was already on the table when we arrived.

Creativity and unique fusion was apparent in the rest of our orders for the night, including the Assorted Samosas appetizer (We got two orders; each order has three samosas.) These were filled with mango & cheese, spinach & tofu, plus a traditional potato & peas one. The mango one had a mango sauce drizzled on it and cheese inside, but taste-wise it tasted like potato with a slight mango taste. The actual potato one we at first mistook for the spinach one, because it looked green inside -- but we realized after a few bites that was the peas. When we figured out which one was truly the spinach one, I tasted it and that one was my favorite. It reminded me of spanakopita.

We also ordered a second appetizer, the Murgh Seekh Kebab, crispy chicken rolls filled with masala cheese. The cheese was not Indian paneer, but rather seemed to be a cheddar mix. I liked this dish, but it didn't taste Indian really, except for the masala sauce.

Mr. Baseball loves cheese (let's face it, who doesn't?), so we ordered both a Cheese Naan (right) and a regular Naan. The naan was just OK. It tasted a little burnt actually. (The best cheese naan I've had to date is at other special occasion Indian restaurant Electric Karma.)

Entrees at Tantraz are served plated, not family style. All of our entrees came with rice. TikiChick ordered one of the night's specials: Green Chicken Tikka. The chicken and the rice were both flavored with mint and basil. I tasted it, and the chicken was a little dry. TikiChick commented that she liked the texture of the chicken, but that the sauce got monotonous after a while. (She solved that by using Mr. Baseball's tikka masala sauce to dip her naan into.)

Mr. Baseball hadn't had Indian food in a long while and his last experience was a negative one, so we recommended he order the perennial palate pleaser: Chicken Tikka Masala. He liked his choice, though he, TikiChick and I all agreed that the sauce was unusual in that the usually gentle tomato-based sauce had a spicy kick aftertaste. I thought this unusual kick made Tantraz's chicken tikka masala unique and I give it props for that.

Nick ordered the Shrimp Coconut Curry, which featured jumbo shrimp, coconut milk, curry leaves, and basmati rice. He liked the coconut sauce with the naan, but didn't care for it with the rice. Of our four entrees, I personally liked his the best.

I got the Apricot Lamb, which is a lamb fillet covered in apricot-curry sauce and served with basmati rice. I'd never seen this dish on an Indian menu before, and I was intrigued. Our server gave it a high recommendation. My opinion is mixed. I generally love the juxtaposition of sweet and savory in meat entrees, like mango chunks on top of baked chicken and the Persian dish of fesenjan (chicken with sweet pomegranates), but sweet and savory seems to work best with white meat dishes -- like chicken or pork. With a dark meat like lamb the sweetness doesn't really sink in. So, the lamb by itself was good and the sauce by itself was good, but together they didn't really combine properly. The bites were tastiest when I cut the lamb super thinly, then covered the slice with the sauce. All in all, I wouldn't personally order it again, but if you like lamb and are open-minded, you might really like it.

I was so full that I had to box up some of my entree to go, but I had to know what creative dessert options the restaurant offered. Everyone obliged me, and we wound up sharing an order of Chocolate Samosas. Served with ice cream, these two samosas were filled with melted dark chocolate and were super crispy. The presentation was great, the samosas were a bit hard to slice into, and the taste was just OK.

All in all, I'd definitely come back here on another date with Nick or with a group for a birthday dinner or club  night. Price-wise, it's more affordable than other special occasion Indian restaurants, specifically Tanzore and Chakra Cuisine. The only other thing you need to be aware of is a downer, and that's the parking. In short, it blows. Be prepared to spend $5 to valet at the restaurant. TikiChick and Mr. Baseball were more familiar with the area (and weren't running late like Nick and I were), so they were able to get free parking on a neighborhood side street. Check the signs for parking restrictions and to see what time the meters stop being enforced on Sunset (I want to say 8 p.m.).

Of course, no outing with TikiChick is complete without going to a TIKI BAR! She took us to one of the Top 5 Tiki Bars in the United States: Tiki-Ti, which is just a half mile down the street from Tantraz. (Again, a quick warning about the parking; you may have to walk a ways from your parking spot. Tiki-Ti definitely is not the style of place to offer valet.)

I'm no tiki bar expert, but I loved this place. It's small and dive-y, but the decor is amazing and much of it is from customers. TikiChick gave us a rundown of some of the highlights, including The Wheel of Tiki-Ti Drinks. If you can't decide on a drink, just spin the wheel (which contains 90 tropical drinks) and let it make the decision for you.

We got (from left to right): Navy Grog (courtesy of the wheel), Sweet Lelani, Bayanihan (my fave), and Ray's Mistake (Tiki-Ti's signature drink).

I definitely recommend Tiki-Ti, though get there early (by 10 p.m.) for a better chance at not not having to wait in line, as it does regularly reach capacity.

What's your favorite special occasion Indian restaurant?

Tantraz: The Art of Indian Cuisine, 3705 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles (neighborhood: Silver Lake) 90026. (323) 663-8268. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Recipe: Mustard Shrimp

Mustard seeds add zing to this Indian seafood entree.

1 lb. peeled, deveined, tail off shrimp (thawed, if frozen)
4 tsp. mustard seed (not the same as ground mustard; found in the spice section of most regular grocery stores or get it at an Indian grocer)
1 jalapeno
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. chili powder (like McCormick Chili Powder)
small pinch of turmeric
1 clove garlic
2 tsp. olive oil
nonstick cooking spray
1/2 cup water
(optional accompaniment) 2 cups brown basmati rise (like Trader Joe's Brown Basmati Rice)

You'll Also Need:

a baking dish (at least 8x8), a blender

1. Dice the jalapeno and the garlic clove.
2. Spray the baking dish with nonstick spray and pour the shrimp into it.

3. Blend together the diced jalapeno, garlic, mustard seed, salt, chili powder, turmeric, olive oil and water for about 5 to 10 seconds or until it looks like the photo on the right.

4. Pour this liquid over the shrimp in the dish. Refrigerate for half an hour.

5. Preheat the oven to 375°F, then bake the shrimp for 20 minutes.
6. (Optional) Serve over a bed of brown basmati rice.

Serves 4.

The AHH Factor: Mustard is a spice commonly found in Bengali cuisine, especially in seafood dishes. This particular recipe is adapted from my Uncle Anuj's recipe via my cousin Annie. (I call virtually every Indian man who's more than a few years older than me "uncle" and every even distant relative my "cousin," but in this case it's literally my uncle and my cousin.) Annie's dad periodically sends her Indian recipes via e-mail; I hope more of these get forwarded to me!

I made a few small tweaks to my uncle's recipe, including lowering the number of jalapenos from two to one. My uncle has one of the highest spice tolerances I know; it's as if in lieu of building up their alcohol tolerances young Indian adults chug habaneros.

Jalapenos, though, are a mild pepper, so after tasting this recipe, I think I would have been OK with the original two. Also, I normally go to great lengths to avoid using my blender (my kitchen is short on outlets, so I have to rearrange things to plug it in), but I broke it out for this recipe as I didn't want globs of spice in my shrimp.

Mustard-based entrees may be an acquired taste. Have you ever had one at an Indian restaurant? What did you think?
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