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By Eric Schaefer
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Ah, the roads of life. Sometimes exciting, sometimes treacherous, and sometimes just plain boring — unless you happen upon a decent little Indian restaurant on your way along the exciting or treacherous ones. That's usually a nice surprise.
And so it is with India Grill. On West Elliot Road, the family-owned restaurant sits in a strip mall on the way to someplace else. Which doesn't mean you shouldn't pop in for its affordable and decent Indian cuisine if you're in the area. And if your taste for the country's cuisine leans toward the creamier, richer, and moderately spicy dishes and cooking styles of its northern region, this place even more so is worth the drive.
Formerly India's Grill in Mesa for more than three years before landlord issues forced owner Paul Brah to move his restaurant to its new home in south Tempe in 2011, the now sans-possessive India Grill features a healthy-size menu of traditional favorites made with the cuisine's notable ingredients — Indian spices, herbs, and vegetables. And because Brah comes from the state of Punjab in northern India, his cooking reflects a heartier side to the nation's cuisine. Gravies are thicker, dairy products — including ghee (clarified butter) — are used more generously than in the south, and flatbreads, like Indian bread and naan, are preferred over rice. If you've never filled up fast at an Indian restaurant in the Valley before, India Grill has a to-go box ready to prove otherwise.
You could start with a trip to India, buffet-style. Available every day for lunch and dinner for around 10 bucks a person, the buffet features about a dozen vegetarian and meat dishes and a couple of desserts. It's an easy way to commit to the cuisine and not to a specific item, but know that the buffet dishes' generally moderate to low spiciness is designed for the masses, possibly leaving you wishing for a bit more zip in your chicken vindaloo.
If you're not taking the buffet route, start with an order of crispy, chunky samosas. Cracking open the thick, bubbly deep-fried pastries reveals a savory filling of spice-laced potatoes and green peas, with forkfuls made better with a dunk or two in a refreshing mint or sweet tamarind sauce.
Although one could argue that sticking with India Grill's complimentary naan, the popular leavened flatbread, will do just fine for eating on its own or using it to scoop up bites of Indian dishes, the dining experience can be upped significantly for a few dollars more. Order it instead as paneer naan, stuffed with homemade cheese, or the sweet and nutty Kashmir naan made with raisins, cashews, and sugar. For those looking for a decidedly northern Indian flatbread, there's onion kulcha. Originating in Punjab, kulcha, unlike naan, is made with baking powder and baking soda instead of yeast, so it is fluffier and breadier than its more famous sister. Stuffed with onions, herbs, and spices, onion kulcha is especially perfect for pairing with vegetarian dishes.
Flatbreads are more popular than rice in northern India, so it made sense that India Grill's selection of biryani (rice-based dishes made with spices, basmati rice, and meat or vegetables) was dismissed entirely by my server, who simply shook her head "no" when I inquired which biryani was best. Best to stick with other dishes, many served up in small, bright copper bowls ideally made for sharing, along with cups of Indian coffee or a dreamy mango lassi, the yogurt-based drink that tastes like a very sweet Creamsicle.
On the meat side, there is good tandoori chicken. Moderately spicy, its pieces of oven-roasted meat, made bright red from chili powder, were wonderfully smoky and tender. The bird also makes an appearance in tasty curry dishes, like chicken tikka masala, in which roasted chunks of chicken (tikka) are marinated in a spiced and creamy orange sauce made with yogurt and tomatoes, and an ask-for-it-spicy chicken vindaloo in a lovely seasoned gravy of tomatoes, chili peppers, and non-traditional chunks of potatoes.
When it comes to India Grill's most popular chicken dish, you had better like butter. With its origins in Punjab, one bite of butter chicken — boneless chunks of oven-roasted marinated meat lazily resting in a thick, creamy orange sauce of tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, various spices, and butter, butter, butter — goes a long way. Best to share this slightly spicy and nearly instantly filling dish generously, or just ask for a large to-go box when ordering.
For those who like lamb, it is consistently tender and well seasoned at India Grill. Like the chicken, it can be found in dishes such as masala and vindaloo, or as butter lamb, but I liked mine marinated in a simply seasoned curry (requested spicy, at the recommendation of my server).
In India, vegetarianism plays an important part in the country's culture, so it stands to reason that non-meat dishes can be found in delicious abundance in the cuisine. And at India Grill, there are several flavorful ones to make note of. There is the popular chana masala, heavy with chickpeas, a bit spicy, and with a hint of sour citrus; the thick, creamy green curry called palak paneer, featuring housemade paneer (cheese) and mild spinach flavor; and the favored curry of north India, mutter paneer, made with chunks of delicate homemade cottage cheese in a tangy gravy made subtly sweet, thanks to tomatoes and peas. For lentil lovers, there's dal makhani, a hearty, richly textured staple originating in Punjab featuring lentils and red kidney beans cooked with butter and tomatoes.
If there's room for dessert, make sure to try the exotic Punjabi treat gajar halwa. Made with shredded carrots cooked in milk and ghee with nuts and raisins, its flavor is like an Indian version of Cap'n Crunch — perhaps that's why it's one of my favorites. Of course, there's always the popular gulab jamun, small deep-fried balls coated in a sugary-good flavored syrup. If I said I could stop at one or two of them, I'd be a liar.
If it is dusk when you join the melting pot of guests in the comfortable dining room — with its TVs playing Indian music videos and Bollywood trailers, wall tapestries, and rust-colored walls reminiscent of the country's deep, rich spices — you will not be asked "table or booth," but "dark or light," alluding to which side of the window-walled restaurant the sun hasn't set on yet. The service is casual and friendly, with servers or Brah himself happy to explain dishes or point you to their favorites. And when you leave, they will say goodbye, happy to have met you and hoping you'll stop in again when passing by.