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.
Platters combining all of these items and more were available for $5 or $6. (The shish kebab and pilaf looked especially appetizing.) The Western-style dinner salad garnish was limp and unappealing, though, and the platters would be better off without it. Everything was served on thick throwaway plates after being reheated in a microwave oven with an unaccountably loud beep.
Desserts were as good as or better than those in "normal" Indian restaurants. The gulab jamun ($1.19) was spongy and saturated with honey sauce, and I'd make a special trip here just for the kulfi ice cream ($1.50), a combination pistachio crust and creamy vanilla affair on a toothpick-thin round stick. Delicious. The stick adds an exotic feel, as if you were eating it straight from a street vendor's cart in Bombay.
Two of us ate much more than we should have, with lots left over, for just under $22. An average diner can leave India Chicken with plenty of rupees in his or her pocket; a thoroughly satisfying meal falls in the $5-to-$7 range, complete with a frothy cup of lassi (a yogurt drink somewhat like a smoothie, $2).
Like many other phenomena of the great subcontinent, India Chicken is a paradox. It aspires to be a fast-food restaurant, yet if you were to just zip in and zip out, you'd miss the best part of the experience -- owner Chunara himself. Each day, bespectacled and dreamy-eyed, he mans the counter, standing behind steaming trays of curries and rice and envisioning his chain of McIndian restaurants. His presence lends the establishment a certain E.M. Forster mystique and poignance. The place pulls at your heart as well as feeding you.
Chunara took so much time explaining the intricacies of his dishes that twenty minutes had passed before we finished assembling the two combination plates we wanted. And that was the delight of it. Personally, I wouldn't want the food any faster. If you're in that much of a hurry, go to Kenny Rogers Roasters. In all fairness, it should be noted that a chicken curry sandwich on nan bread ($4.29) took just a few seconds longer to prepare than a chicken pita at Miami Subs across the street.
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Whether Chunara becomes the Ray Kroc of curry or the Colonel Sanders of tandoori remains to be seen. But for now it's precisely the juxtaposition of his future dream and the present reality that gives India Chicken its charm. We would be saddened if on future visits we were to find, instead of Chunara's wizened and kindly face, a sulky teenager making minimum wage explaining without much passion the difference between alloo-masala and bhel puri.
It's Chunara who makes the place special, handling all the details himself. At meal's end a $1.50 discrepancy on the bill prompted him to recite his views on honesty in business. "Not to worry. I'd never charge you a penny more," he assured us, a crooked finger raised for emphasis, "though I might charge you a penny less." Then he smiled, and it was the type of smile you'd bet your life on.
Go see this man. Step inside his dream for a moment. The food is good, and, fortunately, it's not as fast as it could be. Chunara cares about what he does too much to rush his food, or his guests.
India Chicken Tandoori Restaurant, 705 NE 167th St, North Miami Beach; 653-9960. Open Tuesday -- Sunday from noon to 10:00 p.m.