New India is a grocery store with a secret.
Past produce boxes filled with long, green loki and purple beetroot and shelves lined with bags of basmati rice, sweet corn flour, and enough spices to stock nearly every pantry in the neighborhood — as well as a small deli case of Indian sweets like thick, soft pieces of peda and twisted orange strands of chewy and sugary jalebi — there is an eatery. It's a modest room where guests assemble for a very good meal of Indian food — perhaps a thick and creamy curry, a sizzling, steaming platter of glowing red tandoori meat, or a selection of savory chaat alongside warm triangles of soft and bubbly naan.
New India didn't always have a secret restaurant. For four years, it was strictly an Indian grocery in a strip mall on Seventh Street in Central Phoenix. It wasn't until January 2012 that its Punjabi-minded eatery opened, ever so quietly, for business.
Like the market, the restaurant is a practical place — more functional than cozy. There's a lunch buffet along one wall, clusters of weathered wood tables and fabric-backed chairs, and two TVs softly airing Indian music videos. There is a bit of décor (wall murals of ochre, ornate "windows" looking out into a starry nighttime sky with happy elephants bathing in royal blue water), but a drop ceiling's fluorescent lights keep the atmosphere strictly business. It's a setting that seems to suit New India's staple of neighborhood regulars — an urban mix of young and old families, couples and friends, and solo eaters in for a quick bite — just fine.
From a four-page menu of familiar Indian fare consisting of several popular Punjabi dishes such as tandoori chicken and mutter paneer, the chaat (Indian street food) offerings and vegetarian dishes are the two best reasons to visit New India. And unlike at many Indian restaurants, you won't be asked how spicy you want your meal. Instead, the kitchen decides. This may mean the dishes placed before you will contain heat levels ranging anywhere from faint to eye-watering. Best to proceed with caution if taking the "surprise me" route, or simply speak up in advance.
There are enough top-notch chaat selections to make for a wallet-friendly light dinner or, better yet, a shareable meal with friends. The holy trinity may be the popular samosa chaat, a crispy pastry broken into pieces and topped with garbanzo beans, yogurt, onions, tamarind and mint chutney, and a handful of chili powder for a dish akin to an exotic pie; a spicy helping of bhel puri, a festive mixture of puffed rice, peanuts, and small pieces of potatoes and other veggies; and New India's version of dahi vada chaat, a cold and tangy complement to the former hot and spicy dishes, featuring small chips instead of vadas (fried fritters) soaked in yogurt with potatoes, onions, and garbanzo beans.
And for those who like their chaat super-charged with heat, there's the stuffed chile pakora. A whole Anaheim chile with seeds intact, this pepper, stuffed with potato, onions, and peas before being dipped into batter and fried, will make you suffer for its fiery deliciousness. Its crunchy golden coat gives way to a soft filling resulting in a face-reddening glow more intense the closer you get to the pepper's stem.
For a less spicy and equally shareable substitute, there's the Gobi Manchurian. Listed under the specials section of the menu, this popular Indo-Chinese vegetarian dish essentially is battered and fried cauliflower florets coated in a sauce. Amber-colored with crispy, delicate coats, their taste is tangy and remotely sweet with hints of Indian spices. Also, they are hopelessly addicting.
For those who enjoy both the flavors of India and good ol' American staples, you couldn't be blamed for wanting New India's more novelty items of pizza and chow mein to be a fusion made in culinary heaven. Unfortunately, for now, both are better left in the laboratory for further testing. The pizzas, on the to-go menu, feature names like paneer tikka and chicken tikka, and they fail on their bland, pre-made crust followed by flavorless toppings that belie their colorful display. The chow mein? Sadly, nothing more than spaghetti with pieces of bell peppers, onions, and cabbage.
More flavorable options include the steaming, hissing sizzler platters. Served in cast-iron skillets, four choices of tandoor-roasted meats (go with the bright red tandoori jumbo shrimp) along with bell peppers and onions make for a colorful, mildly spicy meal perfect for those wishing to tread on more familiar territory.
When it comes to New India's meat-based Indian curries and stews, you've probably had better. Many of them lack the rich, deep-seasoned flavor for which the country's cuisine is noted, and they employ a quality of meat and seafood best described as passable. But what the marketplace eatery lacks in fleshy delights, it makes up for on the non-animal side of the equation. Good news for vegetarians or for those seeking to make their healthy eating selections a bit more adventurous.
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From a listing of 15 vegetarian dinners, you could do worse than the familiar palak paneer, in which white cubes of homemade paneer (Indian cheese) poke out from a thick curry sauce of puréed spinach. The Punjabi dish aloo mutter, made from potatoes and peas in a creamy sauce, features lightly sweet bites followed by a slow, building heat. And the vegetable curry of the day may be a sweet and earthy squash-and-potato creation. The best way to enjoy one one of these entrées might be as a thali dinner. Served on a square metal tray divided into sections, it's more or less an exotic TV dinner, where your requested entrée is accompanied by a daily-made vegetable curry, rice, a salad, a few intensely spicy pickles, the yogurt dipping sauce called raita, and a few pieces of naan. Followed by whatever the restaurant has chosen for dessert, this tasty, fill-you-up Indian meal, ranging from $11 to $13, is priced right, too.
The single biggest drawback of New India may be the service. Given its sizable, non-buffet dining crowd, the eatery seems remiss in its staffing decision of one server for the entire room. Friendly, but often distracted — and at times, glacially slow — the servers do their best to accommodate their hungry guests, but often, it's a losing battle for all.
Perhaps it's a sign that New India's secret eatery isn't so secret anymore.