Tabbouleh Market

For dessert, there's dynamite rice pudding and honey-drenched homemade baklava. Middle Eastern crisis? You'd never know it at Elie's Deli.

Priya, 1761 East Warner, Tempe, 777-3466. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

They could eat pizza. They could eat chow mein. They could eat Southern fried chicken. But polls show that Indians prefer Indian food by a margin of about 900 million to one.

I'm with them. I adore Indian food--it's exotic, complex and sophisticated, a cuisine of infinite variety.

Apparently, Valley dwellers are starting to agree with me. New Indian restaurants are sprouting all over the Valley--at least five so far this year.

One of the newcomers is Priya. Its proprietors recently moved here from the Bay Area, setting up their restaurant in a shopping-center storefront that last housed the Chimayo Grill.

Like the owners of Elie's Deli, they haven't done much in the way of redecorating. The Southwestern knickknacks have been taken down, and framed scenes from Indian mythology have taken their places on the whitewashed walls. Homeland music is gently piped in. A lunchtime buffet wagon has been rolled out to the back of the room. Three nice touches: linen-lined tables, cloth napkins and hefty cutlery.

I hope the owners of Pasand, a nearby competitor, believe imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That's because Priya's proprietors evidently spent a great deal of time studying Pasand's menu--the two are virtually identical, right down to the layout and graphics.

Like Pasand, Priya features south Indian fare. As far as I'm aware, these are the only two places in town where you'll find regional dishes like idli sambar, methu vada, rasam, masala dosa, utappam and upma. And, make no mistake, Priya's kitchen knows how to make them.

Sambar is a thick, spicy, cumin-accented lentil soup, while idli are light, steamed rice cakes designed to soak up the liquid. Methu vada are another sambar accompaniment, deep-fried fritters made from lentil flour. Both sambar models hit their mark.

Rasam, meanwhile, is a tangy, tamarind-infused, veggie-stocked broth. The sweet-sour flavor of tamarind is an acquired taste that I acquired long ago. If you've got an adventurous palate, the adventure is certainly affordable--just $1.50.

Masala dosa and utappam are perhaps Priya's two best dishes. The former is an enormous crepe that hangs over the plate, fashioned out of lentil and rice flour. It's crisp and light, and stuffed with a mix of potatoes and peas. Utappam is a dream, a thick, starchy, griddled rice flour pancake flecked with chile and onions, served with outstanding coconut and tomato-chile dips. It's best ordered as an appetizer, to be split three or four ways.

It's a little harder to get excited about upma, unless you have no teeth. It resembles a porridge, gently flavored with cumin seeds, and gilded with split yellow peas, onions and almonds.

Priya also serves more familiar north Indian fare. The vegetable dishes are by far the most successful. Try kofta curry, deep-fried balls made from ground veggies and cheese in a luscious tomato cream sauce. Bhendi masala curry features a blend of okra, onions and tomatoes. My favorite is bagara bangan, small, wonderfully spiced Japanese eggplant.

If you're looking for animal protein, avoid dishes made with chunks of lamb, which is gristly and fatty. You're much better off ordering lamb in the form of shammi kebab, minced lamb rolled with spices and deep-fried.

Chicken is a better carnivore option, especially the chicken tikka masala curry, boneless pieces of poultry seared in the tandoor and bathed in a mild curry. Palak chicken curry, a chicken-spinach dish, would have been better had the cook let go of the salt shaker a few seconds earlier.

Two Indian restaurant staples--biriyani and tandoori platters--can't compete with the Valley's best. The biriyanis, classic Indian rice dishes, lack the rich, lusty flavors that usually make them so compelling. And someone didn't keep a close eye on my tandoori mixed grill. Everything--chicken, lamb, fish, shrimp--spent too long in the oven, and came out dry.

Priya's heart seems to be mostly in its south Indian fare. Stick to that region, and you'll leave here whistling Dixie.

Elie's Deli, 4502 East Thomas, Phoenix, 522-2744. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Elie's Deli:
Kafta sandwich $3.79
Kibbe platter 6.99
Rice pudding 1.75

Utappam $3.50
Bagara bangan 8.50
Chicken tikka 9.00

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