"You speak Hindi?" asked our server. Our eyes were glued to the television screen. Our mouths were chewing bits of lamb samosa ($3.95), delicious flaky fried pastry pockets jammed with ground lamb, cashews, cilantro, and onion.
"No," I said.
"Then how you know?" he asked, waving his hand toward the big-screen TV parked just off the kitchen, a snicker passing his lips.
1922 W. Irving Blvd.,
11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
I don't know. But what I do know is the stuff that was flashing on the screen at Swarna Palace was among the most entertaining tube fare I had seen in a long time. (Actually, I think it was a rear-projection gizmo, but there were several strategically placed small-screen monitors hanging from the ceiling so that you could catch the action from almost any dining angle.) The television was playing a movie from Zee TV, India's largest satellite broadcaster, which beams a mixture of South Asian feature films, news, and sports around the world.
What I was viewing was spellbinding. A svelte hero-type with a shag haircut was in a dark room with a crowd of sinister goons and a suitcase full of cash. Shag-cut pulled a coin from his jeans, which were so tight they could have given Mariah Carey a few more octaves, and flipped it on top of the suitcase. The goons must not have liked the coin toss, because they made a lunge for shag-cut. With a few well-placed kicks, flips, and swift punches, shag-cut changed the room's floor plan and reduced the goons to a tangle of coiled moaners.
Shag-cut then hooked up with a guy in a white suit who looked like a cross between Gene Simmons from KISS and an Idaho russet. Potato-head must have been a corrupt official of some sort, though, because shag-cut didn't fight back as potato-head pummeled shaggy to a pulp against grain sacks stacked on pallets. But that didn't stop the plot twists. Shag-cut brushed himself off and hooked up with a ravishing young woman whose beauty drove him into a song and dance routine complete with waist-clutching twirls, coy little ducks into building alcoves, and dizzying vocal runs punched with highly produced studio reverb.
You don't need to understand Hindi to be thrilled with Indian TV programming, just as you don't need the language to enjoy Swarna Palace's food, which is as lush and colorful as a post-brawl hoedown. Rasam ($2.25), a tamarind-laced soup with tomato, lentils, and onion, was rich and spicy. The chicken fry ($8.95) was tasty too: Boneless chicken scraps, seemingly more thigh and leg meat than succulent breast meat, was fried with cilantro and ginger, among other things.
Lentils, known as dhal, are a staple in India. Dhal curry ($7.50), an engaging pottage of lentils interspersed with spinach and topped with diced tomato, was flush with clean, hearty curry flavor, though it could have used more lentils. A side of white rice was dry and hard, but the oven-scorched naan, a pita bread, was hot, moist, and chewy.
From the outside, Swarna Palace looks more like an aging bowling alley or a back-roads casino in the Nevada boonies than it does a royal manor. Multicolored Christmas lights frame the front. A lighted sign alerts you to the contents: DJ music and lighting system, dance floor, banquet hall, TV Asia and Zee TV, lunch buffet. A pair of wooden barn doors marks the entrance. Maybe this was originally engineered as a hall to hold hordes of two-steppers.
Whatever it is, the TV entertainment never stops. And because Hindi is a prerequisite for making sense of it, the visuals can be jarring, either that or someone kept changing the channels. Crime-fighting elephants flinging metal barrels at gun-toting nasties morphed into a singing couple running toward each other in slow motion, opening their arms to embrace. This was much better than conventional channel surfing.
And this cuisine is much better than conventional Dallas Indian fare. Spinach pakora ($3), a plate heaped with batter-coated and fried spinach leaves, was crisp and chewy -- if a little chalky -- without the slightest hint of grease. Three clean, brisk sauces are provided to enliven the food a bit: a bracing, spicy mint sauce, a rich tomato sauce, and a dramatically subdued coconut-chickpea sauce.
Tandoori mixed grill ($10.95) came sizzling on a metal platter with onion, cilantro, and lemon wedges. Moist blazing-neon-orange chicken chunks mingled with pieces of sweet, juicy lamb.
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Juicy shrimp were tucked throughout a heaping mound of basmati rice in the shrimp biryani ($10.95), a dish with fried basmati rice mixed with vegetables and meat. The moist, fluffy yellowish grain hump was sown with peppers, onion, cilantro, and a strong presence of clove.
Entrées can be ordered as a Thali dinner, a traditional Indian meal served on a metal tray with three or four small metal serving bowls filled with chutneys, soups, and such. The lamb-fry Thali dinner ($11.95), pieces of chewy, slightly overcooked lamb stir-fried with onion, green pepper, and spices, was accompanied by lentil soup, lentil curry, tomato soup, and yogurt with onions. Each small dish was deftly flavorful, while a bump of white rice was supple and separate.
To wash down this lush food, Swarna Palace has teas, juices, and lassis, beverages made with buttermilk or yogurt. Mango lassi is smooth and rich, but not as brisk as the mango juice, a fresh, satisfying purée. Swarna does a lot with mango, such as smooth, creamy ice cream ($1.95).
In fact, Swarna does a lot with virtually everything. But that doesn't matter. I still want my Zee TV.