Many world cuisine restaurants in the Valley can lay claim to having a chef well-versed in the food of his or her homeland. But Karaikudi Palace in Scottsdale boasts three of them.
The trio, in one form or another, is responsible for the restaurant's vibrant South Indian dishes: bold curries nearly falling over themselves with flavor; thin and crispy stuffed dosas; and a parade of richly layered selections from the sea.
"We don't want to change the spice levels for Americans," says manager James Baiva. "It would bring the dishes down."
Karaikudi Palace in Scottsdale: A Taste of South India
8752 East Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (buffet); 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Kadai bindi masala: $10.99
Guthi vengaya curry: $10.99
Eral varuval: $14.99
Kerala fish curry: $13.99
Baiva, along with friends, fellow chefs, and owners Thirupatht Nagulu and Bala Subramanian, grew up just outside Karaikudi, a city in the southernmost part of the Indian Peninsula. The three attended culinary school in India together and came to California around 2005 to work in several Indian restaurants around Los Angeles. Last year, when an opportunity came about to help open an Indian restaurant called Karaikudi Palace in Scottsdale, the three moved to the Valley. Eventually, Nagulu and Subramanian took over the lease and took charge of the kitchen. The front-of-the-house responsibilities fell to Baiva.
Now, just months into operating their first restaurant, the three are starting to make changes. Most notably (and thankfully), they're working on paring down the original tabbed menu of over 132 selections to focus primarily on the foods of South India — and these are the dishes you've come here for. Assertive, expertly prepared, and packed with handfuls of ingredients like dried red chiles, tamarind, ginger, cumin, and cardamom, they just might be some of the best examples of South Indian cooking the Valley has to offer.
If you are in the mood for a South Indian breakfast for dinner, you could start with medu vada, chunky, roughly shaped fried lentil doughnuts that can be dipped in chutneys or dunked in a bowl of spicy, vegetable-laced lentil soup. Those wanting to go the more conventional South Indian starter route could opt for a small, tasty bowl of hot and sour rassam (more hot than sour) heavy with tomato, tamarind, and chiles; or, better yet, an exquisite scratch-made dosa, the crispy-hot Indian-style crepe. The best dosa might be the mysore masala, its somewhat spongy interior smeared with a chile chutney, filled with spicy potatoes, and served alongside dip-ready red and coconut chutneys and a warm cup of sambar.
If you desire a side of naan to go along with your meal, know that it could stand a bit more smoky char. Still, it's not bad — puffy and slightly chewy — serving as a bready scoop for the restaurant's outstanding curries.
The meat entrées, presented in shiny metal bowls alongside basmati rice, range from the satisfactory to the sublime, and two of the best of them can be found as curries in the seafood category. The eral varuval features plump prawns in a spicy curry redolent with garlic and ginger and studded with onions and tomatoes. And the Kerala fish curry, named for the state on India's southwest Malabar coast, is a luxuriously flavor-layered creation of fish chunks cooked in coconut sauce with chunks of red onions, green chiles, and enough spices to deplete a cabinet or two.
For those who prefer land-based proteins, there is a solid and not-very spicy creamy chicken curry, but a trip to Karaikudi's clay oven for pieces of tender tandoori chicken may prove a more flavorful option. Like fried chicken by way of a Punjabi kitchen, the vividly red pieces are tinged with char and marinated in spices. They go from good to great thanks to squirts of lemon, chunks of onions, and dips in a dish of cilantro mint chutney. There's also a spicy and garlicky lamb pepper fry that's pretty much perfect — and if you'd prefer, the kitchen can make it with goat instead.
The vegetables entrées are equally as delicious as the meats, perhaps even more so.
If you're a fan of okra, there is a bowl brimming with it, along with chunks of onions, bell pepper, tomato, and fresh ginger slices, in the tangy and spicy dish called kadai bindi masala. From the state of Andhra Pradesh, on India's southeastern coast, comes a luscious smoky and spicy curry of baby eggplants stuffed with onions and spices (guthi vengaya) that's just about as exquisite as an eggplant dish can get. And the Karaikudi Vegetables, a rich and mildly spicy curry featuring chunks of carrots, potatoes, and green peppers, is more or less Indian-style comfort food.
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For dessert, perhaps an Indian sweet treat of galub jamun, the small, spongy doughnuts soaked in syrup, or better yet, a lip-smacking sugary and warm jalebi, a kind of thin funnel cake with a fun, pretzel-like twist.
The first thing you notice upon entering Karaikudi Palace, located in the Pima Crossing Shopping Center on the northwest corner of Shea Boulevard and the 101, is its nose-tingling aromas. After being greeted by a host and led past the foyer's large, non-working fountain, the room opens up to a pleasant, neatly arranged space of numbered tables and Indian artwork on the walls. There is a buffet the restaurant uses for lunch from Tuesday through Sunday and a bar area of empty shelves waiting to be filled (Baiva has recently applied for a liquor license).
Here, your dining companions will consist of mostly multi-generational Indian families, who, Baiva tells me, sometimes come in three or four times a week. And although there can be a bit of a language barrier, the service is always friendly and efficient, and the wait staff isn't shy about pointing to the best dishes on the menu.
Chances are you'll want to try a little of everything.