What kind of diners go to the Valley's ethnic restaurants? I'd say there are four types:
1. Homesick natives, who yearn to eat home-country cooking in the company of other far-from-home countrymen, while gazing longingly at Tourist Board posters of the land they left behind.
2. The budget-challenged, who know that Third World fare, even in America, generally comes at Third World prices.
3. Culinary cosmopolitans, seekers of exotic dishes who roam immigrant neighborhoods searching for Iranian sheep's head, Laotian monkey meat and West African peanut stew.
4. Open-minded locals, curious folks who realize that chain restaurants and McFast-food parlors don't cover the entire range of human gastronomy.
No matter which category you fall into, this is a good time to be living in the Valley of the Sun, especially on the west side and in the East Valley. Immigrant neighborhoods there are flourishing, and so are immigrant restaurants. Luckily for us, that means getting good ethnic fare no longer requires visa applications, a series of inoculations and a 10-hour plane ride. Want proof? Check out Bombay Palace and Jamaica Miah Cafe, two recent additions to the ethnic-restaurant community that deliver an authentic taste of the homeland.
Bombay Palace occupies the shopping-center storefront that used to house a New Mexican restaurant, an enterprise that never quite caught on. But after just a few months, Bombay Palace already seems to be connecting with the neighborhood. I'm not surprised. As far as I'm aware, this is the only Indian restaurant in this part of town. But the food here is good enough to draw Indian-food fans from east of Central Avenue.
The place looks like it came right out of Central Casting, Ethnic Restaurant Division. The cliches are all in place: a poster of the Taj Mahal; wall hangings depicting the tragic story of Sohni and Mehiwal, a legendary pair of star-crossed Indian lovers; a sari-dressed hostess; a lunch-time buffet table at the back; and piped-in sitar music. Red linen tablecloths and pink cloth napkins inject Bombay Palace's only touch of elegance.
But nobody goes to an ethnic restaurant for the interior design experience. The kitchen here, under the direction of a branch of the family that operates Royal Taj, delivers all the elegance I'm interested in.
The menu looks exactly like the menu at every other Indian restaurant in town. (Back in New Delhi, I suspect there must be an Indian Ministry of Restaurants, which designates dishes available for export.) So don't expect to be surprised by anything new. What is surprising, however, is just how uniformly fresh and tasty everything is across the menu.
Dinner begins with a gratis plate of pappadam: crisp, cumin-scented lentil wafers that serve the same purpose as tortilla chips. Instead of salsa, you plunge them into a pair of lovely chutneys, a zippy mint chile and sweet mango.
Hundreds of Indian restaurant meals have convinced me that appetizers are rarely as good as the main dishes. My visits to Bombay Palace haven't done anything to alter my opinion. The vegetable pakora, an assortment of deep-fried veggies, and samosa, deep-fried pouches stuffed with minced lamb, both do creditable service. But you'll be annoyed you filled up on them once the other courses arrive.
Tandoori cooking is a basic skill that Bombay Palace has mastered. Everything that emerges from the superheated clay oven comes out beautifully, juicy, sizzling and with a bit of a crisp edge. Whether you opt for the chicken, ground lamb, skewered lamb, shrimp or cubes of mahimahi, all coated with spices and teamed with hissing onions, is strictly a matter of personal taste.
Karahai dishes, served in sizzling iron skillets, are just as compelling. I'm particularly partial to karahai shrimp, a half-dozen big critters cooked up in a luscious, ginger-spiked sauce embellished with tomatoes, onion and green pepper. Lamb fraizee, chunks of meat in a rich tomato gravy, is almost as good.
Bombay Palace's superb Shahjahani biryani is probably the best biryani plate in town. It's a fantastic mix of basmati rice--the fragrant, perfumed rice that's an essential element of Indian cuisine--and chicken, cashews and fried egg.
Indian cooks generally have a way with vegetarian dishes, and the chef here doesn't need any lessons. Bhindi masala features okra, aromatically tossed with a rackful of spices. Baigan bhartha headlines roasted eggplant, mashed to a pulp. Perhaps the most intriguing vegetarian option is navrattan curry, nine vegetables tossed with nuts and blended with a zesty cream sauce.
A key test of any Indian kitchen is the bread. Bombay Palace's is so smashing you may not want to eat anything else. Pudina paratha is a marvel: unleavened, layered whole wheat bread, coated with butter and studded with dried mint, cooked on a griddle. Poori, airy pillows of deep-fried dough, are perfect for wiping up sauces. And it's hard to resist making a meal out of paneer kulcha, naan (leavened white bread, slightly puffy and a bit chewy, cooked in the tandoor) crammed with mild Indian cheese.
Dessert is the part of the ethnic meal that Americans usually have the most trouble adjusting to. Whether it's Japanese red bean ice cream or rosewater-scented Middle Eastern pastries, non-Western goodies aim at a sweet tooth most Westerners don't possess. However, I believe the kheer pista, a vibrant rice pudding gilded with saffron and pistachios, has universal appeal. But ras malai, homemade cottage cheese balls accented with rosewater and floating in a puddle of sweetened condensed milk, is more an acquired taste. The same holds true for the homemade Indian ice cream, which, be warned, doesn't have the taste or texture of anything you'll find at Baskin-Robbins.
Bombay Palace deserves to thrive. The food is first-rate, the prices are reasonable, and the portions are ample. Let's hope west-siders, never known for their adventurous palates, have the courage to give it a try.
Jamaica Miah Cafe, 2700 West Baseline (northeast corner of Baseline and 48th Street), Tempe, 453-0023. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
If you've ever spent time in a developing nation, a visit to this small, funky storefront is sure to bring back memories.
Perhaps it's the dreadlocked proprietor's sense of time. He seems to have plenty of it, and expects you to have it, too. You don't need a watch to keep track of the dishes coming out of this "what's your hurry, mon?" kitchen--a sundial will do. And remember that opening and closing times are more a suggestion than an actual guide to the hours of operation.
Perhaps it's the menu, which bears little relation to what is actually in stock. The marker board, for instance, always lists callaloo, a spinachlike vegetable that's the basis for a stew. But I've never hit a time when it was available. On several occasions, I tried to order ackee and salt cod, the national dish. No luck there, either.
(Still, I wasn't too distressed. That's because ackee, a tropical fruit of West African origin, is poisonous in its immature state. How many other countries have national dishes that are potentially lethal?)
Perhaps it's the home-country clientele, who spend time here talking, watching reggae videos and sipping Jamaican soft drinks like Ting, a grapefruit soda, and Kola "champagne."
And perhaps it's the telephone system. For some inexplicable reason, Jamaica Miah Cafe doesn't take calls blocked to avoid Caller ID. A restaurant that restricts incoming phone calls? Why not go all the way and get an unlisted number? I'm still scratching my head.
Or perhaps it's the food. I took friends here who'd lived 11 years in the Caribbean. Jamaica Miah's look, rhythm and food, they pronounced, were "the real thing."
Is the real thing for everybody? That depends.
The small menu is built around fish and chicken. The only nibbles are Jamaican patties, flaky turnovers stuffed with beef, chicken or veggies.
We had poultry in all its forms. Curry chicken is lovely, done up in a rich sauce that's more subtle than spicy. As a treat, the proprietor ladled on some "dumplings," thick, heavy, bready balls that are perfect for curry-dipping.
Brown stew chicken, skillet-seared and coated with innocuous spices, isn't quite as interesting. Jerked chicken is a better option, grilled up crisp and teamed with red beans and rice topped with seasoned potatoes.
Fish dishes feature red snapper. After repeated requests, I prevailed on the proprietor to make me up fish tea, a Caribbean broth generally flavored with green bananas and veggies. This homespun version had no bananas, but it was well-stocked with carrot, potato and dumplings, along with unfilleted morsels of fish. It's very different and very tasty.
The whole snapper, crusted with mild island spices and grilled, is a tribute to simplicity. Crisp on the outside, moist on the inside, it's a basic dish that's basically satisfying.
Two homemade desserts end the meal on a sweet note. Chocolate rum cake is heavy and moist. So is the coconut pineapple upside-down cake, with its spoon-lickin' layer of caramelized sugar on the bottom.
Jamaica Miah Cafe is no gastronomic palace, and dining here requires a certain attitude adjustment. But it's fun, cheap and out of the ordinary. How many places in this town can you say that about?
Tandoori chicken (half)
Jamaica Miah Cafe: