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Walk into the food court of your average mall and you can order fast Chinese, fast Mexican, fast Italian, fast Middle Eastern. There are certain cuisines, however, that have stubbornly refused to become fast. Indian cooking, with its intricate tapestry of spices and arcane cooking methods, has epitomized "unfast" food for centuries.
An experience several years ago underscored this phenomenon for me. A friend and I arrived at a now-defunct Indian restaurant in Tampa at 1:00 p.m. on a weekday to find the place deserted. No patrons. No workers. Nobody except two very small children, blissfully unaware of our presence, using the cash register as a jungle gym. When they finally sensed us, their heads jerked up in alarm, their eyes widened, and they screamed in unison, "People! People!" in fetching, high-pitched Indian accents. They slid down the register, hopped off the counter, and ran helter-skelter into the kitchen, from where the owner emerged several minutes later. Over the next two hours we remained the place's sole customers and were treated to not only a feast but a few lessons in Indian cooking and a family history as well. Fast it was not.
Enter a new concept. Three-month-old India Chicken Tandoori Restaurant in North Miami Beach is billed as "a new restaurant with a new concept in Indian cuisine." In other words, Indian fast food. The patron is promised "excellent and delicious taste, modern decor, and cleanliness, with low affordable prices." And this is precisely what the patron gets. But it's not quite that simple.
First, the decor. Located a few doors from a Carvel ice cream shop in a strip mall, India Chicken is a cross between Pollo Tropical and the Taj Mahal (not the monument in Agra but the Indian restaurant in Kendall, now called Shalimar). Sitar classics and popular modern Indian tunes play in the background, and a reassuring waft of turmeric and cumin hits the patron immediately upon entering. Like so many things Indian, the restaurant has a kind of tragic vibrancy to it: bright orange walls with banks of shiny golden baffles, six red booths that seat a total of twenty, scuffed white floor tiles, and enough fluorescent lighting to illuminate a Marlins game.
The clientele on a recent weekend night was 90 percent Indian, which portended good things. Smiling corpulent Indian businessmen, young couples, children with gorgeous big brown eyes. One woman walked in wearing an elaborate sari, gave the owner a hug, and walked behind the counter to help whip up the orders.
The owner and mastermind of Indian Chicken, Firoz Chunara, is from Bombay, where he owned a Chinese restaurant some years ago. He envisions this as the first in a chain of fast-food restaurants specializing in Indian cooking. And his establishment does have all the requisites -- an overhead menu board, cafeteria-style trays (bright orange, of course), ready-made food, and a superabundance of plastic utensils and receptacles of all sizes. A stunning variety of condiments is as bountiful (and as tasty) as you'll find in any of the tonier joints in town. Personal favorite: achar (spicy Indian pickles in oil). The raita came in a dainty plastic cup, and I wished the portion were larger; it was some of the best I've ever had, laced with cardamom and other subtle spices that did not detract from the intended cooling effects of the yogurt-based dish.
One might think, given the name "Tandoori Restaurant," that a tandoor (clay oven) could be found on the premises; that, unfortunately, is not the case. "We use a rotisserie," concedes Chunara, "but it's the same concept as tandoori, with no difference in taste." I don't know. The tandoori chicken ($1.50 for a breast, with potato and salad) was on the dry side and didn't have the traditional seared-in salmon color. I have found the clay-oven-fired fare in other Indian restaurants to be tastier, and the herbs more thoroughly baked into the meat. Maybe it's psychological, but seeing two birds spinning in an aluminum box didn't set the mood for a Mogul's feast.
Other dishes, though, were remarkably good. All of them are cooked in the Bombay style, which, with its blending of spices and specialties from several regions, is the most popular throughout central and southern India. The vegetable samosa appetizer was moist, aromatic, and, at 75 cents, a real deal, with bits of vegetable that were notably crisp (crispness being at a premium in Indian cooking).
Main courses, served from buffet-style bins behind protective glass, included eggplant alloo-masala ($4.29), which, though decidedly not the best eggplant west of the Ganges, was still flavorful and satisfying. The biryani platters ($4.99), heaped with a mixture of basmati rice, tender chunks of meat, veggies, and an amalgam of tangy spices, were perhaps the best choice of the evening. The chicken curry-rice ($4.49) was fall-off-the-bone moist, and the kofta (Indian meatballs swimming in pungent juices) were everything little round bits of meat should be. Indians are famous for their bean dishes, and here lentil dal and chickpea sides did not disappoint. One item noticeably absent -- the delectable cubes of light cheese used in traditional offerings such as sag paneer.