Clandestine Curry

A Taj Mahal of tasty Indian treats is hidden in the Best Western on Central

One of the bonuses of dwelling in a real metropolis is having a reputable Indian eatery within reasonable distance of one's digs. When I resided in New York, I was the luckiest I've ever been in this regard. My building was near 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue, and just a short stroll up Lexington was a sprinkling of all-night Indian buffets clustered together. I'd often head there like an infant after his mother's bosom once I'd imbibed myself silly on black-and-tans in one of the nearby pubs. In the morning, I'd awake fully clothed in my bed, and my memory of the night before would be jogged by the remnants of curry on my jacket.

Phoenix fortunately has a number of Indian eateries, but they're mostly too far away from me. When I want an Indian fix, folks, I want it tout de suite! I don't want to hoof it to Bell Road or Tempe. Until recently, there's only been one Indian restaurant near me, Flavors of India on 16th Street, south of Camelback, but I can't say I was terribly impressed by my meal there. Perhaps it was an off night. Still, it did not inspire a return trip.

I was bemoaning this state of affairs to a friend and fellow nosher when she asked if I'd been to the "secret Indian" place yet. Secret Indian? Sounds like some Peter Sellers farce from the late '60s, I thought. In fact, it's the restaurant for the Best Western Hotel on Central Avenue, just down from the central library, formerly known as the Downtown Grill and Bar, but recently renamed Downtown Curry and Grill (though not yet on the sign outside) by the new management. When you go there, my friend explained, you have to ask for the Indian menu. Otherwise, they'll just give you the American one, which has such generic offerings as tuna melts, taco salads and chicken tenders.

From Nepal with love: Our Himalayan hero Mr. Prem brings Indian cuisine back to downtown.
Jackie Mercandetti
From Nepal with love: Our Himalayan hero Mr. Prem brings Indian cuisine back to downtown.

Details

Meat samosa: $2.95
Chicken korma: $8.95
Lamb biryani: $8.95
Lal mohan: $2.50

602-252-2100. Hours: American breakfast only, Monday through Sunday, 7 to 11 a.m.; American and Indian lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; American and Indian dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Indian buffet only, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

1100 North Central Avenue (Best Western Hotel)

Intrigued, the following night I paid a visit to the Best Western. The recently renovated restaurant with its green ceilings, wooden shutters and comfortable green-and-gold booths had nothing to suggest that it served any comestibles from the Subcontinent. On my way out, I did espy the traditional bowl of fennel seeds that are the Indian version of after-dinner mints. Beside this bowl was a small pile of green takeout menus. But other than these clues, there seemed to be no outward manifestation of the restaurant's hidden South Asian charms.

I inquired about the Indian menu as instructed, and my waiter dutifully brought me a bill of fare listing all my northern Indian faves: meat samosas, curries, vindaloos, naan, you name it. Now if only the quality of the cuisine lived up to my pal's recommendation . . .

Happily, it did. I've gobbled my way through a good deal of the extensive menu, and I'm ecstatic to report that downtown Phoenix has an Indian joint worthy of repeat visits. Indeed, from this point on, I've placed Downtown Curry and Grill in my "heavy-rotation" file, meaning I'll be visiting at least once every week.

This doesn't mean DCG is perfect. Unless its manager/head chef Prem Tamang is attending to you, the service can sometimes be off. When I stopped by recently with friends, our waiter, who seemed unfamiliar with some of the food he was serving, neglected to bring us one order and delivered another instead that we'd never mentioned. The mix-up was quickly remedied once the handsome, soft-spoken Tamang came over. We ended up eating the item brought to us by mistake (a paneer masala, homemade chunks of tofu-like cottage cheese served in a spicy tomato sauce) and loving it all the same.

Two other very, very minor criticisms I have of DCG involves its lunchtime buffet and its vindaloo. The vindaloo was not as spicy as I like it -- a good lamb vindaloo, for instance, should make you want to cry like Britney Spears during that Diane Sawyer interview. But DCG's was intentionally mild, I think, because Mr. Prem, as I like to call him, was afraid of scarring our Westernized palates. My caveat, then, would be that if you're a past master of Madras (the really hot dishes), ask Mr. Prem to lay it on, which he assures me he will do.

As for the lunchtime buffet, I wish it were larger. Usually, there are two meat curries, one lamb and one chicken; and a couple of veggie items like aloo gobhi -- potatoes and cauliflower in Indian spices -- and saag paneer, Mr. Prem's buttery spinach with chunks of the Indian cheese mentioned above. In addition to some pakoras, or deep-fried veggie fritters, there are also maybe a couple of mithai, or desserts, such as a raisin and rice pudding called kheer, or the lal mohan, little brown balls of pastry that are somewhat like doughnut holes, save they're moist and served in sugary syrup. Mr. Prem jokingly refers to these as "camel balls," because, well, that's what they look like, though I expect the real deals would be a lot bigger, and not nearly as scrumptious.

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