Double Take

Has Curry Corner in Tempe Lost its Luster?

Things rarely stay the same in the restaurant industry. Whether it be a remodel, a menu overhaul, or a new executive chef, sometimes time and transitions mean we want to give a restaurant a second look. A Double Take, unlike a full review, revisits restaurants to check in and check out how things have changed.

Since opening in 2010, Curry Corner has established itself as something of a Tempe institution. Over the years, the beloved Indo-Pak restaurant on Apache Boulevard has become the go-to take-out place for many locals craving curry,  or perhaps a big succulent heap of tandoori-cooked chicken or kebabs. It's also a popular student hangout, the place to stew about midterms and trade stories with friends over a reasonably priced thali platter of veggie curry and lentils — no extra charge for naan and rice.

The restaurant was even featured on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives about three years ago, placing it in the pantheon of Guy Fieri-approved pit stops. No matter how you may feel about Fieri, it's hard to deny the power of a TV appearance; even today, you may still run into regulars who say they first found out about Curry Corner after seeing it on the "Triple D."

Curry Corner doesn't seem to have any kind of popularity problem. On a recent weeknight, the restaurant's small waiting area resembled the lobby of your neighborhood Denny's on a Sunday morning, which is to say, it was spilling over with customers. People idled near the entrance, waiting to collect their to-go orders, or huddled awkwardly near the front door as they waited to be seated. So, business, it appears, is brisk, even as the availability of good local Indian restaurants has expanded in the years since Curry Corner first popped up in south Tempe. 

But even well-entrenched local gems have to constantly strive to stay on top and ensure a certain level of consistency and service. Lately, unfortunately, there have been signs, some more subtle than others, that Curry Corner no longer shines as brightly as it once did.
There's the matter of service, for example, which you may experience as friendly but perfunctory. Placing an order can be an exercise in patience, and once your food has been delivered to the table, chances are you may not speak to another employee until it's time to head up to the counter and pay your check. 

If you're not in a hurry, though, the dining room at Curry Corner is not a terrible place to find yourself. Some updates are clearly needed; the menus, for instance, are grubby and torn in places, which obscures some of the descriptions. Overall, however, it's a welcoming space, one that was significantly expanded more than a year ago to accommodate additional diners. And even though Curry Corner may have grown, it still radiates the casual, family-friendly vibe that helped make it a neighborhood destination. On a busy weekday night, with the house speakers playing music softly in the background and the flat-screen TV in the corner flashing the latest CNN headlines on mute, the whole scene can feel — not unpleasantly — a little bit like a great big family room. 

The expansive Curry Corner menu includes Pakistani and Indian dishes, including staples such as chicken biryani, chicken tikka, and south Indian thali platters, along with harder-to-find delicacies including nehari noor jehan, a famously saucy Pakistan delicacy that involves marinating boneless pieces of beef shank overnight. But you will probably be tempted to linger over the appetizer menu first, which includes standard dishes like deep-fried samosas and house specials like Curry Corner's popular tikka masala fries. 

On a recent visit, an order of samosas yielded three of the cilantro-flecked, distinctly triangular-shaped dumplings, stuffed with ample potatoes and peas. Much of the pleasure of eating a samosa is derived from its extra-crispy shell. That particular joy was lost here, though, as these samosas were more heat-lamp doughy than crisp, and its interior mix of potatoes and peas was under-seasoned. The house tikka masala fries, meanwhile, leaned toward being soggy, even lukewarm, in places. The generous heap of fries were nicely seasoned with a zig-zag dribble of zesty tikka masala sauce and salty nubs of feta cheese, but without the base of hot, extra-crispy fries, the dish lost much of its appeal as it quickly grew colder and soggier.

From the tandoori menu, there's the popular "mixed grill sizzler," which comes with a combination of popular tandoori meats including beef kebabs and marinated chicken tikka. The marinated meats come on a steel platter, in a fragrant tangle of grilled white onions and green peppers. During a recent dinner, the marinated chicken leg and thigh, dyed a dusty pink-red, were both succulent and tasty, infused with a nice balance of ginger and garlic. The beef kebabs, however, were dry and bland. 

Goat karahi, a traditional Pakistani dish and a house favorite, is a better option. The goat, served bone-in, comes steeped in a garlicky, gingery sauce, with a few bay leaves still floating in your silver tureen. It's a lovely dish, full of balance and herb-scented flavor, the kind of offering that reflects careful execution and leaves a strikingly good impression on your palate.

It's too bad that doesn't happen more often, and with more consistency, at Curry Corner. 

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.