The Dhaba has Indian food fit for kings and Punjabi truck drivers
In rural India, a dhaba is a roadside pit stop where truckers can fill their tummies after they've filled their tanks at the petrol station next door. It's a place for a cheap, filling meal of Northern Indian food, and maybe even a quick snooze on a charpoy, a squat, wooden-framed daybed made from woven string.
In a sleepy part of Tempe — that stretch of Apache Boulevard near the 101, where ASU action gives way to the dinginess of west Mesa — The Dhaba is a happening new Indian restaurant, a definite improvement to a rundown neighborhood that still boasts a check-cashing store, a liquor store, and an adult bookstore, all on the same block.
And like its namesake eateries (which, nowadays, are found even in Indian cities and serve up the kind of nostalgia that old-fashioned diners inspire in the U.S.), The Dhaba specializes in the cuisine of the Punjab region in Northern India, with awesome homemade breads baked in the tandoor oven, tandoori halal meats, deep-fried treats, and street snacks called chaat. Not to mention, it's inexpensive (items max out around 10 bucks, but many are less than five), and just in case you need a post-meal nap, there are even a couple of inviting charpoy out front.
The India Plaza grocery store that adjoins the restaurant has long served chaat in a casual market environment, but The Dhaba amps up the comfort level with table service and a relaxed but stylish atmosphere. Heavy, ornately framed mirrors punctuate the clean, contemporary space, done up in soothing shades of pale sage and deep honey. The clientele is mostly young Indian families, who seem to order enough dishes to cover every inch of the textured dark wood tabletops.
If the flat-screen TV is within your view, don't be surprised to find yourself staring and chuckling at mesmerizing Bollywood dance footage. (My favorite scene involved a smoldering Indian Marilyn Monroe surrounded by hip-thrusting dudes in matching shorts and kneepads.) Also, don't be surprised when, on a weekend night, you might be treated to live dancing. Unlike the shimmying, spangle-clad belly dancers I've seen at other local restaurants, these ladies do a tastefully choreographed performance.
Right now, the drink options are somewhat limited, partly because The Dhaba doesn't have a liquor license just yet. Certain things on the menu aren't always available, either. So, the two times I attempted to order coconut juice, I was told they didn't have it. Thick, creamy mango lassi was a fine alternative one night, while complimentary masala chai — spicy, brewed strong, and tempered with milk — kept me happy on another occasion.
After trying a few of the delectable chaat, I found myself wondering whether I might've been a Punjabi truck driver in a former life. Truly, the Indians have an entirely different notion of convenience food than we do. These dishes were a celebration of tangy, sweet, and spicy, of hot, crunchy fried dough and cool toppings, all in one bite. Chile powder, diced red onion, potatoes, chickpeas, tamarind and mint chutneys, yogurt, and fresh cilantro were common elements in the chaat I tried. I'm not sure if this stuff is actually healthful, but it sure seems wholesome compared to cheese-slathered nachos and greasy hot dogs and whatever else you might find at a rest stop in this country.
Ambala tiki chaat was immediately likable, with crisp pieces of potato pancake smothered in chickpeas and plenty of those addicting sauces. As my friends and I ravenously scooped it up, I was already plotting to order some for myself next time. Delhi papdi chaat had a similar and slightly soupier appeal, with cracker-like fried dough, potatoes, gram beans, onions, tamarind chutney, mint chutney, and generous dollops of yogurt sauce. Meanwhile, the Bombay bhel puri was a drier take on the savory snack, with potatoes, onions, and fresh cilantro tumbled into a pile of puffed rice and thin, crispy sev noodles, made from chickpea flour.
Masala papad, a thin, crunchy flatbread speckled with cumin seeds, was also served with luscious chaat-style toppings. As I'd hoped, garlic naan was doughy and delicious, although chili naan, with emerald green bits of pepper glistening across its tandoor-charred surface, was more of a novelty, with a bit of chile heat. The griddled corn flatbread called makki di roti was like a soft, thick tortilla, while paneer kulcha was a puffy slab of wheat flour bread filled with savory Indian cottage cheese.
Paneer appeared elsewhere in the menu, as an ingredient in the luscious lahori malai kofta (vegetarian dumplings in a creamy, heady sauce), and most memorably as hariyali paneer tikka, one of the tandoori dishes. At first glance, it looked sort of like grilled tofu, except that the taste and texture were much more interesting. For one thing, the dense, almost grainy consistency of the cheese, which was lightly seared on the outside, reminded me of meat as I sank my teeth into it. It also had a unique, slightly salty taste that held up to the heavily spiced marinade and grilled peppers and onions that accompanied it. A squeeze of fresh lemon made the flavors sparkle.
Also from the tandoor, I sampled the nawabi murg tikke, a platter of yogurt-marinated boneless chicken that was succulent and mildly spicy. Paired with a heap of sabji biryani — a fragrant vegetable rice dish studded with raisins — it was enough to feed two people. The biryani also went well with other dishes, as a means of slurping up rich sauces.
Numberdar saag was as good for its spicy spinach paste as for the moist chunks of chicken in it. Dhaba machi tari consisted of a lip-smacking, deep golden curry filled with silky pieces of fresh sole. And gosht rogan josh, a Kashmiri specialty, featured tender pieces of boneless lamb. Long after I'd plucked the meat out of it, I couldn't stop myself from scooping up more of the decadent, buttery sauce with pieces of bread. Made with dried red chiles and yogurt, it was a deep, ruddy brown, with a flavor just as intense.
Once the naan and biryani had seemingly expanded in my stomach, I still needed a taste of something cooling and sweet. Punjabi ice cream wasn't available, unfortunately, so I went with badami sevian kheer instead. This was a much lighter version of rice pudding than I've had in a while, with sliced almonds, cardamom, and squiggles of Indian vermicelli in a sweet, milky soup.
Rasmalai, a Punjabi dessert made with milk and wheat flour, was like chunky, slightly sweet ricotta, with a faint pistachio perfume. Meanwhile, gajrela, described as carrot fudge on the menu, wasn't as smooth as real fudge, but it was still just as sweet, a dense confection made with milk and puréed carrots, raisins, and cashews.
Though the desserts were a bit of an acquired taste, I still enjoyed them, especially since my taste buds needed a break from the curry.
Not to mention, I was getting in touch with my inner Punjabi truck driver.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.