Location: 1905 Bridgeport Way, University Place
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays and noon-10 p.m. Sundays
Price range: $ The scene: A waft of Indian spices nails you before you can even pull open the front door. Small, cozy, welcoming and fragrant are the best descriptors for this restaurant.
Type of food: Indian food from the northern region of India, which includes traditional Punjabi dishes and specialties from other Northern India states.
Menu highlights: Flavor-punched is a great way to describe Northern-style Indian food. Although commonly described as spicy by some Americans, Northern Indian food is more flavorful than spicy hot. However, those with sensitive palates might find their delicate taste buds confused by the intensity of the flavors. If you’re skeptical, it’s best to start easy with a rice (biryani) dish and some naan.
Tandoori-cooked chicken and lamb ($11.95 to $14.95) also are a sure bet for an Indian food newbie. The Indian style marinated and barbecued meats are accessible to most palates.
Aromatic rice biranyi dishes ($11.95-$12.95) and favorites like Chicken Vindaloo ($11.95) and Butter Chicken ($12.95) will appeal to those who are familiar fans of Northern-style Indian food.
Another thought for those not familiar with the nuance of Indian cuisine: Go for overkill in the form of a feast. The Pride of Punjab Family Style Dinner ($39.95 for two or $19 per person for three or more for the meat version of the dinner; a vegetarian version of the dinner also can be ordered) comes with two appetizers, two main dishes, a vegetarian entrée, rice, naan, two desserts and more. It’s a great introduction to the food.
People in the kitchen: Amarjit Randhawa opened the restaurant in October 1996. Before that, he worked in restaurants back East and elsewhere before opening India Mahal. His brother Sohan Randhawa opened the sister restaurant India Mahal (823 Pacific Ave., Tacoma) in 1997.
Dishes sampled: We started with two typical Indian appetizers: samosas and pakore. Vegetable samosas ($3.95) were delicious little triangle pastries stuffed with a wonderfully spiced creamy mix of spiced peas and potatoes. Chicken Pakore ($6.95) was a healthy serving of chicken marinated in yogurt and spices, battered and deep fried. It’s like the Indian version of chicken nuggets.
Get your carbs on with the fresh-baked breads menu ($2-$3.95). Naan is a classic choice. We opted for regular ($2.50) and an order of garlic ($2.95) naan. Both are delicious for sopping up the sauces for your entrees. Save them for the main course, or order an extra order for when your entrées arrive. Roti, papadam and other Indian breads also are available.
Mater Panir ($10.95) anchors the extensive vegetarian menu. Indian food is very vegetarian-friendly, so if you have a dining partner who is a veg-head, India Mahal is a great choice. The Mater Panir is a combination of fresh homemade cheese, sort of the texture of meaty (so to speak) tofu with a satisfying heartiness, and peas that were so fresh, they “popped” as one of my dining companions said. (Actually, she said, “These peas are poppin’!” if we want to get technical.) The sauce is a robust combination of spices, creamy thick and deeply flavored.
Butter Chicken ($12.95) is a must order. Chicken pieces are simmered in a very rich tomato-based sauce that is as creamy as it is flavorful. This is a dish that screams for an extra order of naan or a hearty serving of Basmati rice on the side. You’ll want to lick up every last drop of the sauce, it’s that rich and satisfying.
Gosht Curry ($12.95) is a good example of how well this restaurant layers the spices in its curry dishes. Although not individually identifiable, the many spices flavoring the sauce are intensely layered and balanced in a way that is very difficult to replicate in a home kitchen unless you really know what you’re doing (this is why I only occasionally attempt cooking Indian food at home. It’s best left to the pros). The result is a deeply delicious sauce that is also naan scoopworthy. The Gosht Curry comes with lamb, beef or pork. Definitely ask for the lamb if it’s available the night you visit, it’s a delicious, meaty treat.
Service: Unbelievably delightful. We were one of only three parties dining there after 8 p.m. on a Saturday. Our server was eager to answer our questions and make recommendations. We appreciated his humor, and the jokes he told us at the end of the meal. Also, he constantly cleared plates, a necessity for the small table. We appreciated the attentiveness.
Most unexpected moment: We asked for a wine list and our server pointed at the menu, which said “glass or bottle.” Of course we joked for 5 minutes about “glass or bottle” wine. It wasn’t until later that we saw the wine list sandwiched under the glass on the table. Still, the wine choices were pretty limited. Our choices were of the Gallo variety: red, white or pink. We stuck with Taj Mahal lager beer. Can never go wrong with that.
Wild card: Try the $8.99 lunch buffet, served 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays.