Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
Like it or not, it's hard to deny that Chipotle has become an incredible restaurant success story. Quality, if not authentic, food and a user-friendly build-it-how-you-want it service model. It's ripe for plagiary, and we've already started to see the concept copied for everything ranging from enchiladas to pizzas.
Enter Bombay Spice Indian Grill. Actually, it's Bombay Spice Part II....Bombay Spice already existed as a fast-casual table service restaurant, but recast itself in the Chipotle image with a new location near the intersection of Tatum and Cactus. In the world of ethnic food, there are general two camps: those dead-set on authenticity and those open to more interpretation. I fall into the latter camp, and have always believed that "watered-down" ethnic food is better than no ethnic food, especially if it opens people's minds and palates to new flavors, makes cuisines less intimidating, and gives a reason for someone to delve further into more authentic offerings. It's like a gateway drug. For reasons that I'm not sure of, Indian food has never reached the mainstream in the same way as Japanese and Chinese. Bombay Spice is a very good start, but don't expect authenticity.
The concept is simple: choose a bowl, wrap or salad. Choose a base of Basmati rice, brown rice or quinoa. And then choose proteins (veggie is available), toppings ranging from broccoli, cauliflower, chickpeas and onions, and a sauce to go on top. I chose Vindaloo; I had a terrible cold on the day of my visit and thought that Bombay Spice's warnings that it was "really hot" seemed like a good way for me to sweat it out. While the flavor was delicious, the heat level barely registered on the Scoville scale. You could feed this stuff to an infant. (Don't blame me if you don't like the messy result.) But the flavor was definitely there, and it's easy to see how Bombay Spice can make a daunting cuisine like Indian food something that even a cautious eater can appreciate.
One could legitimately argue that you'd be better off going to a "real" Indian restaurant, and they may be right. Sadly, as far as lunch goes, many of this town's better Indian restaurants only operate in buffet mode, resulting in warmed-over standards that barely do justice to the kitchen's abilities. Lunch at Karaikudi Palace, my favorite Indian restaurant, is a far cry from the caliber of the food during dinner. Still, as a proponent of expanding one's culinary palate, some Indian is better than none and Bombay Spice satisfies a craving. I'm glad that it's in my neighborhood.
I can only speculate what cuisines will soon go the way of Chipotle, if they haven't done so already. While the cuisine is certainly dumbed-down, it isn't without flavor or appeal. Often, with less-maintsream food, approachability is the initial hurdle to overcome. And if that means that your first encounter with velvety Masala or complex Vindaloo comes at the expense of authenticity, resulting in a desire to explore further until your lips are singed and your brow sweaty from a true Vindaloo, then Bombay Spice will do just fine.