With even humble sandwiches approaching the $10 mark at lunch, I’ve been searching for bargain weekday dining that’s also fast.
It needs to be tasty. It needs to be interesting. It needs to guarantee I’ll be back at my desk in an hour.
My current lunchtime obsession hits every one of those requirements, plus it delivers a satisfying lip sting: Indian food buffets.
Slow-cooked stews and vegetable-based entrees are built for steam tables. Flavors are deeply spiced, ingredients diverse. The only downside might be texture. There’s a whole lot of saucy stuff and mushy textures on an Indian buffet line.
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Oh, and spice haters? Just stop reading now.
You’ll keep your bill to around $10 for an all-you-can-stand-to-eat lunch, and it won’t take more than 30 minutes unless you want it to. The field in Pierce County is limited with just three restaurants serving lunch buffets: Gateway to India (Tacoma and Gig Harbor); Great Cuisine of India (Lakewood) and India Mahal (Tacoma). For this report, I visited each twice, weeks apart.
Evaluating three buffets that are quite similar to one another meant that the comparisons exist in the fine details. Here, I’m alerting diners to what each buffet does best.
If you’d rather just have the short version, here it is. Gateway to India in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood had the best selection, variety, the most successful execution of dishes, and the most attentive service. It also has a weekend buffet.
GATEWAY TO INDIA
Tacoma: 2603 Sixth Ave.; 253-552-5022 or gatewaytoindiarestaurant.com.
Gig Harbor: 6565 Kimball Drive; 253-851-2688.
Buffet: Lunch daily. $9.99 weekdays; $11.99 weekends.
Note: Tacoma location only reviewed for this report.
Gateway to India opened in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood in 1996. The Gig Harbor restaurant opened in 2009. At the Tacoma location, an attractive dining room greets diners with cheerful peach walls, colorful lanterns and roomy wooden chairs. The buffet line moved quickly, with traffic hardly jamming during a crush. Be warned, this buffet is frequently busy, which means a first visit outside of peak time would be ideal.
Daily lineup: Salad and condiments, naan, pappadam, pakora, basmati rice, biryani, eight entrees, two desserts.
Excels at: This buffet proved the most vegetarian friendly, with four meat-free entrees (not counting bread, salad or rice). Even better? Gateway to India lists vegan entrees on its menu. Just ask.
Must try: Any and all vegetable dishes. Chickpeas wafted of cinnamon in kabuli chana. Mushroom mutter swam in a sweetened spiced cream sauce. Buttery artichoke hearts broke softly in a creamy gravy. Curried green beans struck me as an ordinary ingredient, but the sauce came tinged with peppery heat and earthy notes. Curried turnips sounded odd, but I craved seconds of the perfumed dish.
For meat eaters: Butter chicken was fortified with an extra creamy sauce; goat curry was standard on both visits and came with a delicious mineral backbone.
For heat lovers: Spicy pickles were hot enough to cause physical pain; curried green beans hurt my lips; I wanted a second helping of murgh (chicken) vindaloo, but that also hurt so good.
Desserts: Kheer (rice pudding) on one visit was sweet and fragrant with cardamom; vermicelli version of the pudding on another visit carried a slippery texture. Mango custard tasted consistently dull.
Skip: Dry tandoori chicken, floppy naan.
GREAT CUISINE OF INDIA
9518 Gravelly Lake Drive SW, Lakewood; 253-581-1333 or greatcuisineofindia.com.
Buffet: Lunch daily. $10.99 weekdays; $11.99 weekends.
Sail into this dining room during peak lunch buffet time and find grandmas dining right alongside soldiers. The buffet is spread out along the back wall. Diners will find a frequently replenished buffet that’s well ordered. An odd complaint, but here it is: There were no small bowls to hold sauces or desserts.
Daily lineup: Salad and condiments, naan, pakora, basmati rice, biryani, six entrees, two desserts.
Excels at: Most change. Only one dish, tandoori chicken, repeated on two visits; every other dish was different.
Must try: Flaky, buttery naan on both visits tasted hot out of the tandoor; the outer layer crackled with every bite, the inside warm and soft. One masala dish was a treat with wedge-cut tart apples simmered in a cumin-tinged gravy (this one’s not listed on the menu). Aloo gobi, dotted with pungent fennel seed, was a mash of potato and cauliflower. Garlicky butter chicken in a spicy creamed tomato sauce, and its sweeter cousin chicken tikka masala, were absolute must-eat dishes. Aromatically spiced chana masala carried a mild tang and creamy chickpeas. Tandoori chicken was slightly dry, but robustly seasoned.
Vegetarians: Three vegetarian choices per visit. No vegan designations listed.
For heat lovers: Mutter paneer, the cheese dish with a vivid orange sauce, held building heat. A breaded chicken dish called “chilly” was anything but. This fiery dish had my lips stinging well beyond lunch.
Desserts: Absolutely the best mango pudding I’ve ever had, consistent on two visits. Rice pudding was fine, but don’t miss that custardy mango dessert.
Skip: “Meatball” curry came with a gamey funk; zucchini masala tasted watery, and pakora tasted greasy on one visit.
1905 Bridgeport Way W., University Place; 253-564-2039 or indiamahal.com.
Buffet: Lunch weekdays, $9.99.
This University Place restaurant previously had a sibling establishment in downtown Tacoma, but that branch closed last year (it’s now a Herfy’s). This is the smallest of the restaurants reviewed for this series, with a matching compact-sized buffet. The line clogged easily. The order of the food was tricky, considering how cramped the buffet was. Desserts were jammed behind plates. Be careful juggling that plate. Also, here’s something I know will bother some: Consider this restaurant a steam table surprise. The other two restaurants label dishes, but India Mahal did not.
Daily lineup: Salad and condiments, naan, pappadam, basmati rice, six entrees, two desserts.
Excels at: Spice and meat. The dishes here were spicier, and the buffet favored lamb and chicken dishes. This is the buffet for those who prefer flavor-walloped dishes. The tandoori chicken was top notch for flavor on both visits and texture on one visit, although a bit soupy on another.
Must try: Bhindi masala packed hefty heat and the pleasing squeaky texture of slow-cooked okra. Channa masala had delicate heat.
Vegetarians: Two dishes on one visit; three on another. Because the items aren’t marked, you’ll need to ask.
For carnivores: This is a meat-eater’s buffet. Lamb meatballs were dense. A chopped chicken dish on both visits was a pleasing pile of meat. Tandoori chicken carried the smokiest seasoning of any on this tour.
For heat lovers: Bhindi (okra) masala will slap you in the face — twice. Vegetable korma clouded my mouth with persistent heat. Even the butter chicken, normally a fairly mild spiced dish, packed heat. I wasn’t complaining, but I also am tolerant of heat.
Desserts: Outstanding version of gulab jamun, and the only one offered on this tour. That dessert combines fluffy fried doughnuts in a sticky honey syrup. Rice pudding was just as tasty.
Skip: Watery salad and condiments; dry butter chicken.