Before I talk about food, let me offer a few words of praise for the humble strip mall.
What? You scoff? Sure, strip malls can be the bane of urban sprawl, but they're what this area has in abundance. As an architecture and design fan, yeah, I'd rather be describing an undiscovered treasure trove of funky historic buildings, but who am I kidding? In the Valley, people embrace the challenge and use what's at hand, and sometimes the result is ingenious.
Strip malls are our natural resource. Every boxy, generic space is actually a blank canvas filled with myriad possibilities for creative, entrepreneurial types. Here, a cookie-cutter stretch of storefronts can secretly house anything you can imagine: an edgy coffee shop, a rowdy pub, a chic sushi bar, a sophisticated fine-dining spot. You just never know.
Michele Laudig's Cafe
2048 East Baseline Road, Mesa
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. daily
Chicken tikka masala: $11.99
Shrimp achari: $13.99
A strip mall can even house a palace, I've discovered.
Seriously, the atmosphere inside Mesa's Guru Palace is a deliberate antidote to the sameness that sometimes pervades local retail complexes. Step through the door here, and you'll find yourself inside a cocoon of Indian opulence that hints at all the excellent Punjabi cuisine on the menu.
It seems every surface is adorned in this restaurant, the focal point being an enormous, colorful mural of the Taj Mahal in the dining room. There's also a cozy bar area and a plush corner nook filled with pillows and low-slung seating. It's all so soothing that you might be compelled to curl up and take a snooze, especially after you've splurged on luscious plates of curry, fragrant biryani, and crispy, chewy naan sprinkled with garlic.
I really like it here, and that has as much to do with the people as the place or the cooking. Service is simply welcoming, attentive, and kind. Even on a day when I showed up for the lunch buffet — which, by the way, is a smokin' deal and the best Indian lunch spread I've encountered in many years — my waitress didn't skip a beat.
It would be easy to fill up just on appetizers and fantastic tandoori breads, so try to pace yourself. I had to exercise some major restraint when faced with an order of samosas, small dumplings whose golden, flaky crust gave way to soft, gently spiced potato-and-pea filling. Likewise, the combination of crunchy pakora — gobs of deep-fried vegetables — and bright, zesty mint chutney was invigorating. My dining companions and I polished off a plate of mushroom pakora with ravenous abandon.
Chewy, blistered rounds of naan bread were tasty naked or with garlic, but the one filled with cheese and speckled with sesame seeds was even more intriguing. Other breads had good fillings, too, including onion-stuffed kulcha (a puffy, golden, Northern Indian flatbread) and cauliflower-stuffed paratha (a thin, toothsome variety that's pan-fried). Give me a hot cup of chai, some of these breads, and some chutney, and I could almost forget about entrées.
That is, until those dishes actually arrive. Which one is the best? Whichever one I'm eating at that moment.
Truth be told, the chicken tikka masala at Guru Palace was so delicious that my friends and I kept spooning up the buttery, ginger-kissed tomato sauce even after we'd plucked all the meat out of it, and when it came down to leftovers, yes, we wanted to take that sauce home. Every precious drop was mouthwatering.
Chicken was moist and flavorful in every version I tried, from succulent, on-the-bone tandoori chicken to chicken dopiaza (cooked with onion and tomato in creamy sauce) to chicken saag, a spicy, silky stew of meat and spinach. In the way of seafood, I enjoyed shrimp achari, an aromatic, exotically spiced dish accented with fenugreek seeds.
There were lots of vegetarian dishes that I sampled from the lunch buffet — palak paneer (homemade cheese in creamy spinach sauce), daal maharani (a thick, hearty lentil stew), aloo gobhi (cauliflower and potatoes perfumed with ginger), and curry pakora (fried vegetables soaked in smooth curry sauce). Food this rich makes me quickly forget about meat.
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But I'm still a fan of lamb, and couldn't resist the lamb rogan josh, a knockout curry packed with tender, melt-in-your-mouth chunks of meat. Fluffy peas pulaou (basmati rice cooked with green peas) and vegetable biryani (rice with nuts, herbs, and spices) made welcome accompaniments to all of the above, even when it came down to just sopping up another helping of sauce.
Dessert may sound unbearable after indulging in so much heavy, savory stuff, but it's well done at Guru Palace, and worth a few bites just to cool your taste buds from the spice. Dare your friends to share, if you must.
Kheer (that is, Indian-style rice pudding) was easy to love, with a light, milky consistency and a hint of pistachio. Fried balls of cheese dough (gulab jamun) were soaked in rose-tinged syrup, and were just the kind of sweet relief I needed. And gajrela, made from carrots, was enhanced with spices and cream, and served warm. It sounded healthful but was just as deceptively decadent as dessert should be.
It was a fitting end to dinner at this deceptively charming restaurant.