Cafe Reviews

Clandestine Curry

One of the bonuses of dwelling in a real metropolis is having a reputable Indian eatery within reasonable distance of one's digs. When I resided in New York, I was the luckiest I've ever been in this regard. My building was near 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue, and just a short stroll up Lexington was a sprinkling of all-night Indian buffets clustered together. I'd often head there like an infant after his mother's bosom once I'd imbibed myself silly on black-and-tans in one of the nearby pubs. In the morning, I'd awake fully clothed in my bed, and my memory of the night before would be jogged by the remnants of curry on my jacket.

Phoenix fortunately has a number of Indian eateries, but they're mostly too far away from me. When I want an Indian fix, folks, I want it tout de suite! I don't want to hoof it to Bell Road or Tempe. Until recently, there's only been one Indian restaurant near me, Flavors of India on 16th Street, south of Camelback, but I can't say I was terribly impressed by my meal there. Perhaps it was an off night. Still, it did not inspire a return trip.

I was bemoaning this state of affairs to a friend and fellow nosher when she asked if I'd been to the "secret Indian" place yet. Secret Indian? Sounds like some Peter Sellers farce from the late '60s, I thought. In fact, it's the restaurant for the Best Western Hotel on Central Avenue, just down from the central library, formerly known as the Downtown Grill and Bar, but recently renamed Downtown Curry and Grill (though not yet on the sign outside) by the new management. When you go there, my friend explained, you have to ask for the Indian menu. Otherwise, they'll just give you the American one, which has such generic offerings as tuna melts, taco salads and chicken tenders.

Intrigued, the following night I paid a visit to the Best Western. The recently renovated restaurant with its green ceilings, wooden shutters and comfortable green-and-gold booths had nothing to suggest that it served any comestibles from the Subcontinent. On my way out, I did espy the traditional bowl of fennel seeds that are the Indian version of after-dinner mints. Beside this bowl was a small pile of green takeout menus. But other than these clues, there seemed to be no outward manifestation of the restaurant's hidden South Asian charms.

I inquired about the Indian menu as instructed, and my waiter dutifully brought me a bill of fare listing all my northern Indian faves: meat samosas, curries, vindaloos, naan, you name it. Now if only the quality of the cuisine lived up to my pal's recommendation . . .

Happily, it did. I've gobbled my way through a good deal of the extensive menu, and I'm ecstatic to report that downtown Phoenix has an Indian joint worthy of repeat visits. Indeed, from this point on, I've placed Downtown Curry and Grill in my "heavy-rotation" file, meaning I'll be visiting at least once every week.

This doesn't mean DCG is perfect. Unless its manager/head chef Prem Tamang is attending to you, the service can sometimes be off. When I stopped by recently with friends, our waiter, who seemed unfamiliar with some of the food he was serving, neglected to bring us one order and delivered another instead that we'd never mentioned. The mix-up was quickly remedied once the handsome, soft-spoken Tamang came over. We ended up eating the item brought to us by mistake (a paneer masala, homemade chunks of tofu-like cottage cheese served in a spicy tomato sauce) and loving it all the same.

Two other very, very minor criticisms I have of DCG involves its lunchtime buffet and its vindaloo. The vindaloo was not as spicy as I like it -- a good lamb vindaloo, for instance, should make you want to cry like Britney Spears during that Diane Sawyer interview. But DCG's was intentionally mild, I think, because Mr. Prem, as I like to call him, was afraid of scarring our Westernized palates. My caveat, then, would be that if you're a past master of Madras (the really hot dishes), ask Mr. Prem to lay it on, which he assures me he will do.

As for the lunchtime buffet, I wish it were larger. Usually, there are two meat curries, one lamb and one chicken; and a couple of veggie items like aloo gobhi -- potatoes and cauliflower in Indian spices -- and saag paneer, Mr. Prem's buttery spinach with chunks of the Indian cheese mentioned above. In addition to some pakoras, or deep-fried veggie fritters, there are also maybe a couple of mithai, or desserts, such as a raisin and rice pudding called kheer, or the lal mohan, little brown balls of pastry that are somewhat like doughnut holes, save they're moist and served in sugary syrup. Mr. Prem jokingly refers to these as "camel balls," because, well, that's what they look like, though I expect the real deals would be a lot bigger, and not nearly as scrumptious.

No doubt the size of that buffet will increase as more people downtown learn of its availability and affordability. (DCG, you see, has yet to do much advertising, and remains mysteriously diffident about its Indian edibles.) After all, it's only $6.95 for all you can eat, an incredible bargain that will leave you contentedly undoing the top button of your britches afterward. But even if you can't make it to the buffet, all of the items above are included on the menu.

When it comes to appetizers, I'm a fan of Mr. Prem's meat samosas, which are a little greasy, but in a good way. And his mulligatawny soup is a must. This Anglo-Indian creation predates the British occupation when it was, as its name suggests, "pepper-water," but according to most sources, the British influence helped turn it into an actual soup. Recipes vary, but Mr. Prem's includes peppercorns, lentils, tomato, various spices and bits of chicken in a mélange so piquant it could double for Claritin when it comes to clearing nasal passages.

For a main course, try the chicken tikka masala, chicken korma or the lamb biryani, if you're like me and love lamb. A biryani is a sort of Indian fried rice, similar to Chinese fried rice or a Persian pilau. DCG's lamb biryani (there are vegetarian, chicken, shrimp and other types available, too) includes chunks of tender lamb, raisins, sliced almonds, onion, tomato and green peas, as well as spices such as cumin, cinnamon, black pepper and ginger. It's as savory as any I had during my numerous lost weekends on Lexington.

The chicken korma is creamy and yellowish, made of onion gravy with coconut powder and cilantro over thick pieces of white chicken, very mild and delicious, and perfect for beginners. And everyone adores chicken tikka masala, which is probably the most popular Indian dish in the world, with tandoori-baked chicken in a thick vermilion-colored sauce with onions, tomatoes and almonds. As with all the dishes, the level of spiciness is up to the customer, but a side order of raita, or yogurt sauce, will ensure that you can moderate any spiciness with a tablespoon or three of same.

There are several Indian beers available: Himalayan Blue, Flying Horse, and the ever-popular Kingfisher. However, if you're unfortunate enough to be a teetotaler or are just in the mood for a nonalcoholic treat, order one of Mr. Prem's lassis, those rich Indian yogurt smoothies. My favorite is the mango lassi, which at DCG is dark orange from the mango and nearly of milk shake consistency.

Interestingly, Mr. Prem is actually from Nepal, and has worked all over the world in various hotels and restaurants. He's an amiable chap, who'll tell you all about how he used to climb mountains barefoot when he was a kid, and never even put on a pair of shoes until he was 18. He used to run the now-defunct Bombay Grill on Van Buren, so he knows a thing or two about Indian cuisine, and he tells me that having a double menu like he does -- and in a hotel beanery to boot -- is a way to meet the rent and give denizens of central Phoenix what we crave: a Taj Mahal of tasty Indian treats to call our own.

"Every day it's getting better and better," says Mr. Prem, whose name means "love" in Nepali. "People are looking for Indian food, and now they don't have to drive far away to find it."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons