CURRY UP

I've always liked East Indian food. The spiciest I've ever eaten was on a hiking trip through the British Isles. My boyfriend and I were in London and decided to forgo fish and chips for Indian food one night. Both of us were pretty macho about spicy food, whatever its national origin, so we told our waiter we wanted it very, very hot.

"This will be very hot," our waiter warned. "That's fine," we said blithely. "That's what we want." Looking at us sympathetically, he shrugged his shoulders, took our menus and left.

Well, the first bite was okay. The vindaloo was hot all right, but I thought I could handle it. With each successive bite, however, the level of heat increased. You know how sometimes spicy food seems to peak, then drop off? Not this dish. This spiciness was blowtorch hot and incremental. I ate maybe four bites, at which point the physical pain was so great I had to stop. I ordered ice cream, hoping to regain some feeling in my mouth. My boyfriend, a.k.a. Mr. Asbestos Mouth, finished up the vindaloo. Later, under pressure, he did admit the food was "pretty spicy."

Happily, you don't have to go as far as London for good Indian food anymore. East Indian places are a growing segment of the Valley's restaurant scene. We are fortunate to have not one, not two, but five full-service Indian restaurants. This in a town where, five years ago, there were none.

Delhi Palace started it all in late 1986 when it moved into the former Jamaican location on McDowell Road. Since then, that Delhi Palace has been sold and the name changed to Indian Delhi Palace. Meanwhile, the owners of the original restaurant have opened another Delhi Palace in Tempe. The two restaurants are under separate ownership and management.

I visited the Tempe Delhi Palace shortly after it opened late last summer and was very impressed. Everything was fresh and tasty, the sauces differentiable. My friends and I had a memorable meal.

When a dining accomplice and I visit this time, I anticipate another good experience. I don't think it will give too much away to tell you we got just that.

The new Delhi Palace is more intimate and cheery than the Indian Delhi Palace on McDowell. Glass chandeliers add some sparkle. The dreamy wall murals in the new restaurant depict Indian architecture and river scenes. Large brass teapots guard the arched entry from the small bar-lounge area into the dining room. I like the feel of it.

The menu is identical to the Indian Delhi Palace's, so we are familiar with its offerings. But, rather than order our usual favorites, we decide to extend ourselves--for your benefit, of course.

People have a fear, I think, of ordering too much or not enough at Indian restaurants. Let me say a word about that. First of all, you can never order too much. Indian food is excellent when reheated at home, so simply pack up what you can't eat. Also, remember: The spicier the food, the less you can eat in one sitting. (Conversely, if you order it mild, you'll be able to wolf it down with no problem and want more.)

As far as ordering too little, listen to your waiter. He's not trying to cajole you into spending more money, he's trying to guide you into ordering a well-balanced Indian meal. Generally, for two people, that would include a rice dish (rice is not included and is most essential); tandoori-baked bread, such as naan or paratha; two dishes--either two meat, two vegetable, or one meat and one vegetable; cooling yogurt raita; and beverages, either Indian beer, a soothing mango lassi or a soda--trust me, water won't help cool a mouth on fire. For more than two people, add more bread and more main dishes.

Of course, I ignore my own advice on my second visit to Delhi Palace, because we're here on business. I order assorted snacks as an appetizer, even though I know they'll only fill me up. But, what can I say, it's my job.

Crispy pappadum is served, compliments of the house, with spicy green mint chutney, referred to by some as "that incendiary green sauce." For Southwesterners, pappadum, a wafer-thin bread, and mint chutney are India's answer to chips and salsa. We munch on these while we wait for the snacks.

Which turn out to be quite likable. There's a tricornered samosa, a golden-brown fried turnover filled with cumin-flavored potatoes and peas; shish kebab, grilled spiced ground meat; and two pakoras, fun and tasty vegetable fritters. A dipping sauce made from tamarind is brought; dark and sweet, it is a nice alternative to the mint chutney. Need I tell you that we manage, somehow, to finish off the snacks?

When our main dishes begin to arrive, it is obvious that this time we have clearly overordered. But, again, I'm not complaining. Everything looks and smells wonderful!

Chicken tikka masala is one of my very favorite dishes, and no one does it better than Delhi Palace. Pieces of tandoori-baked chicken are served in a flame-colored, buttery tomato sauce. Gosh, it's good. You can still taste the tandoori seasonings on the chicken even if you order it very spicy, as we did. We're glad we have a mango lassi and 7-Up to quench the fire.

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