Locals don't need to travel far in Phoenix to experience biryani — the classic Indian fluffy rice dish. The origins of the meal boast historic royal beginnings, but the ingredients are simple: a layered mixture of vegetables, rice, and meats, all infused with ginger, garlic, cardamom, bay leaves, coriander, cinnamon, green chiles, pepper, and cloves. Although vegetable biryani is a popular choice, a meat — either chicken, fish, or goat — is the focus of the dish.
The key part of the process is to linger over the cooking of the rice. This offers a chance for the meat and vegetables to become tender and the spices to sufficiently marinade as a blend. Biryani is usually accompanied by raita — a yogurt condiment infused with roasted cumin seeds, salt, pepper, and cilantro. Topping the rice with raita is a quick way to soothe the heat in biryani. However, some might prefer to pair it with a curry to amp up the spice.
Every restaurant and household cook has their version of the meal, which reflects flavors of a particular region. Biryani is a colorful and complicated dish, and Phoenicians are lucky to have access to local spots to satisfy their curiosity. Here are a few Valley options for the novice or experienced biryani connoisseur:
1212 East Apache Boulevard, Tempe
There is a reason why Curry Corner made Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The aroma of cumin, cinnamon, and garlic meets you in the parking lot (meaning don't wear your Sunday best while dining here because the strong spices will stick to your clothes). The service is generally quick and diners are welcome to bring their own booze. Curry Corner's biryani is as good as it looks and served in authentic Indian pots. The rice is soft, there is an option to choose your spice level, and the meat is cooked with care. The portions are generous, the garlic naan is fresh, the paneer is soft, and the curries taste homemade. To add a special touch to the experience, there are various cooking shows demonstrating how certain foods are made in India on the television screens.
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Bawarchi Indian Cuisine
3607 East Bell Road, #6
You might miss Bawarchi Indian Cuisine if you aren't paying attention. The storefront is small and tucked into a shopping strip off the highway. As soon as you walk in, you are greeted by teal blue tile and photographs of vintage Bollywood actors, Indian deities, and peacocks. For a second, you feel like you are in 1970s India. Plated in a steel thali, the yogurt, korma curry, and biryani makes a perfect trio. One drawback is the rice being a little tougher to chew and at times the spice overwhelms the vegetables.
Chennai Chettinaad Palace
2814 East Bell Road, #1455
For a casual upscale experience, Chennai Chettinaad Palace is a spacious and warm location for Indian cuisine. Indian artwork accessorizes the walls while the TV screens plays various videos from Bollywood movies.This is an attempt to replicate the vibe you might find in an authentic restaurant in India. They offer three types of biryani: tomato, vegetable, and Hyderbadi biryani. The rice contains the right amount of fluff (if the rice is too moist, it ruins the essence of a biryani). The cinnamon and cardamon is subtle and the palate isn't overwhelmed with just spice. Chennai knows how to slow cook this dish, offering equal time to all of the players — the rice, the spice, and the vegetables. You pay a little more in price, but servings are generous. The naan is a welcome complement as it's soft, tender, and baked in an authentic tandoor oven. For the complete Indian cuisine experience for families and out-of-town guests, Chennai is the place to go.
Biryani and Bites
3130 East Union Hills Drive
At Biryani and Bites, the welcome is difficult to forget. The walls are painted dark and light orange with several brown tables lined up across the room. There is a counter in the back of the restaurant where patrons can help themselves to Styrofoam plates and utensils. In a small space there are six flat screen televisions, two displaying the menu and three cued to various channels of Indian entertainment. Biryani and Bites can be a little rough and tumble, dining room-wise, but the rice is cooked perfectly — moist and tender. The overall taste of the dish is one of butter with very little spice or flair to the dish, so you might need to dress it up.
Pastries N Chaat
Don't let the simplicity of Pastries N Chaat's appearance fool you. There isn't much ambiance, but this also means less fuss. Diners can stare at the menu as long as they want since there are 19 choices, including fish, shrimp, goat, and chicken biryanis. Their signature dish is likely the vegetable biryani. Topped with crisp onions and tomatoes, the biryani has an ample amount of vegetables with no one ingredient out-powering the other. The chicken biryani is a little rushed, and is casually thrown on the rice without much forethought. Be prepared to brace yourself for the spice level. It is not mild and raita is a must. To add another twist to the dish,some like to add the chili paneer as an appetizer. A family of three to four can easily split the biryani dishes and the price point makes it affordable to try all of the choices.