Restaurant Week 2011: The Dhaba

It's a cliché that the best ethic restaurants are the ones frequented by people of that ethnicity -- but it's also usually true. Who better to determine the quality of Japanese or Punjabi food, for example, than someone who hails from that area of the globe and grew up eating their traditional dishes?

Dhaba's chicken and mango fritters are delish.
Dhaba's chicken and mango fritters are delish.

Our wimpy table stuck with Level 2 on the spice scale, which made our eyes water only slightly.

Samosas were two giant, pillowy fried heaps that consisted of spiced mashed potatoes with peas and a few token carrot slivers. More intriguing was the Punjabi Murgh Pakore appetizer -- fritters made with chicken and mango. The pakore were plump and juicy, with a light curry flavor and a subtle sweetness.

They were also so scrumptious that the dish made us swear off anything resembling a Chicken McNugget for life.

A solid rendition of chicken tikka masala had plump, lean meat chunks swimming in a rich, spicy orange sauce, while palak paneer was the best I've tasted in Phoenix. The spinach dish was rich and creamy, with a green, earthy flavor. The cheese cubes were so fresh that they squeaked against my teeth.

It's no accident that most of The Dhaba's desserts are milk-based, as alkaline foods are known to help counteract the effect of spicy foods. A Punjabi ice cream dessert known as kulfi had the outer consistency of ice milk, with little crystals forming around the edges.

Inside, the dish was creamy and sweet, with most of the flavor coming from the pistachios and cardamom embedded throughout. More pungent were the rasmalai, cottage cheese dumplings soaked in a milky broth. The texture was a bit mushy and mealy, but a delightful lemony undercurrent in the dish made for a good finish to the meal.

Individually, the chicken-mango fritters and dessert dumplings were the standouts for taste. But The Dhaba isn't about perfecting a single dish. Here, it's more about the experience as a whole: customized heat levels, attentive servers and honest food that will likely draw newbies back in after Restaurant Week is over. 

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