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.

Lamb korma is equally spectacular. Ours is golden-colored and delicately flavored with yogurt, nuts, raisins and spices. It would be a good dish to order mild, but we, of course, request it medium.

Delhi Palace also makes the best chana masala in town. In this dish, garbanzo beans (chick peas) are marinated with ginger and masala spices (cardamom, clove, cinnamon, cumin seeds, black peppercorns). The result is astounding. When prepared correctly, the ginger really comes through and energizes this dish.

Aloo matar, our second vegetable, throws potatoes (aloo) and peas (matar) together with tomatoes, onions and spices. We order both dishes medium and are pleased with the level of spiciness. But let this serve as a warning: If you like it mild, order it mild at Delhi Palace. They take you at your word here; there's no second-guessing back in the kitchen.

For rice we order a vegetable biryani. This dish mirrors Chinese fried rice in that it's twice-cooked; I prefer the Indian version. In a biryani, basmati rice (aromatic and long-grained) is partially cooked before the vegetables or meats are added. The whole mixture is then baked together with nuts, raisins and saffron--which gives it a yellow color. It is a lovely dish and we are not disappointed tonight.

We try both the plain naan and paratha. (I told you we went whole hog.) I think I like the former better. Paratha is layered bread and therefore heavier; naan is long and lean and retains a nice grilled flavor from baking in the tandoor, a clay oven.

Everything is cooled down with raita: yogurt whipped together with chopped cucumbers, potato, tomato and a sprinkling of cilantro. I use this refreshing mixture (along with rice and bread) to keep my personal spice consumption at a tolerable level. Breaks in the battle are essential, even for seasoned veterans.

It will come as no surprise that we have no room for dessert. None at all. Or that we leave the restaurant with two large carryout containers.

So, do as I say and not as I do, but do go to Delhi Palace.

Last fall I visited Taj Mahal and had such a disastrous experience I vowed never to go back. Of course, that was before New Times made me its hired restaurant gun. When I signed on to eat and tell, I knew I'd have to return. Frankly, I wasn't looking forward to it.

Well, I'm here to tell you I am happy to be employed. Taj Mahal has greatly improved since my last visit. Enough for me to recommend that you give it a try.

For one thing, Taj Mahal's menu is not a carbon copy of Delhi Palace's. In fact, you'll find beef dishes on the menu here. Holy cow! Beef? In an Indian restaurant? I ask our waiter about it. He tells me one of the restaurant's owners is Muslim and one is Hindu. "It's the food of all India," our waiter says of the menu. "Not just food according to Hindu religion.~"

For novelty's sake as much as anything, we decide we must try a beef dish. Because we are still stuffed from our meal at Delhi Palace the previous day, my dining accomplice and I decide not to go in for such a rigorous workout at Taj Mahal. We decide to err on the side of conservatism, and order a lot less.

We munch on crispy pappadum with mint chutney and tamarind sauce, but forgo the appetizers this time. I like the interior of Taj Mahal, which is cheery and vaguely feminine with its dark-green carpeting and mauve tablecloths. Walls are tastefully embellished with brass platters and framed Indian art.

The mixed grill comes first. We can hear it sizzling as it leaves the kitchen. It smells divine. Our waiter divides the platter evenly between us and distributes grilled onion and lemon wedges onto our plates. Shrimp, chicken, lamb, sausagey shish kebab--all are tinted fire-engine red and are tender and tasty as can be. We have absolutely no trouble eating every little piece of this tandoori treat. The remainder of our dishes arrive when we've polished off the grillwork. Beef madras is light colored and delicately flavored with cream, cilantro and coconut. The meat in this dish also is tender. I like it, though it still seems funny to be eating beef.

Bhindi masala is a vegetable dish comprised of okra, onion and spices. Truly, you have to love okra to order this one, but I do. Taj Mahal makes sure these "ladyfingers" (an English name for okra) are slightly crunchy and not at all mushy. Bhindi masala tastes of nutmeg and cinnamon and is most agreeable.

"Basmati plough rice" is perhaps a bad translation of pullao, which simply means pilaf. Ours is prepared with peas and onion. It is colorful, cumin-flavored and wonderful.

Plain naan and raita are very high quality as well.
Would you believe I have room for dessert? (My stomach must have stretched.) I try the kulfi, which our waiter tells us "is like an ice cream." Like is the operative word. Kulfi reminds me of homemade ice milk cut into small, bite-size slabs. It's vaguely cheesey, too much so for me to love wholeheartedly, but the nutmeg and cinnamon flavors win me over. All I can say is it's, well, unusual.

So, there you have it, two more great options for dining on Indian food in the Valley of the Sun. Though I haven't mentioned it yet, service at both restaurants is attentive, prompt and most cordial. I think your only problem now is finding time to start making the rounds.

Before another one opens.

Delhi Palace, 833 East University, #103, Tempe, 921-2200. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Taj Mahal, 8021 East Roosevelt, Scottsdale, 946-2890. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

You know how sometimes spicy food seems to peak, then drop off? Not this dish. This spiciness was blowtorch hot and incremental.

You'll find beef dishes on the menu at Taj Mahal. Holy cow! Beef? In an Indian restaurant?



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