Surrounded by mango-colored, sparsely decorated walls, I pondered the small bowl of grayish-brown paste, flecked with tiny specks of bright greens (from herbs) and red (from chiles).
"What kind of pickle is this?" I asked, initiating that awkward dance between two people more comfortable in their native tongues. After a little hesitation, the waitress dashed to the back. She returned a few seconds later, holding a large gourd with wrinkly, pockmarked skin and ridges that ran its length.
"It's a Chinese okra," she told me. I pointed back to the small bowl, to verify what was once green and fresh had found new life in a dull-colored soft puree. She answered with a nod.
Taj Chaat House
Chicken Samosa $5.99
Goat Curry $12.99
Shrimp Biryani $14.99
Taj Chaat House
Bhel Puri $3.50
Paneer Bhurji $8.50
Sweet Pan $1.25
Indian pickles are robustly flavored, intended more for embellishment than to be consumed on their own. They come in endless varieties. Summer staples like fruits, vegetables and spices are submerged in a cocoon of salty, acidic preservation. The quality also varies, ranging from packaged mango and lemon pickles to the versions freshly made in competent Indian kitchens.
Pickles take significant labor to cook down and blend. They demand special storage and time to mature. It's a lot of work, and well-executed pickles are indicative of a restaurant that has the knowledge and resources to put together polished food.
In a small Irving strip mall, alongside an Indian grocery and a prayer center, sit two restaurants whose pickles tell you a little something about the kind of food experience each serves up.
The first, Amruth, is home of that Chinese okra pickle, a smooth amalgamation of tart, earthy and salty flavors, both pungent and piquant. What started as a small addition to my plain steamed rice became a dip (used sparingly) for my nann. By the end of dinner the bowl was clean. Just as impressive was the mixed-vegetable pickle, comprising carrot, cauliflower and a red chile-tinged oil. It's kind of like piccalilli but with more bravado. This pickle would kick the English pickle's ass.
Amruth is a medium-sized restaurant with two separate dining rooms. The main area offers seating for 60. Off to the side, the "party room," denoted in black laser-jet font on Great White 8 1/2 x 11, looks anything but festive. Perhaps with the right crowd you could turn the place into a real smasher, but when I visited it was dimly lit and empty.
Back in front, Bollywood movies play on a medium-sized flat-screen TV — the sort of movies you're used to seeing play on 19-inch Toshiba tube TVs perched on top of soda refrigerators in less refined Indian restaurants.
"Please Don't Waste Food," asks another note, also fashioned on simple office paper. It's decent advice. Better to work the buffet carefully, or you'll end up with a massive plate swimming in a sea of mixing sauces.
Basking in the yellow glow of heat lamps, the small buffet is conveniently divided into meat and vegetable sections. No need to worry about mixing butter paneer with butter chicken, or thick lentils with a minced meat curry. Another station offers cold salads.
The idly, a steamed rice cake, is dry, so make sure you get some sambar. I spooned the vegetable stew into a bowl, submerging the idly to soak in a tamarind-laced broth.
It was a decent starter, but not as showy as the chicken samosas, which aren't offered on the buffet but should be ordered anyway. The wheat-dough purses, fried to a blistery golden brown, held a simple mixture of fried chicken breast, softened onions and aggressive fresh cilantro. Dip them in a tamarind chutney, or mint, or even both.
When I visited, the staff pushed the buffet. Even when I requested a menu, they asked, "Are you sure?" and then clarified that menu items cost extra. I couldn't tell if they were trying to help me manage my budget or if the kitchen didn't feel like cooking, but either way, you'd do well to explore the menu. The samosas are just one hidden gem.
Chili chicken tasted similar to many clichéd Americanized Chinese dishes, but with the kick of Indian spice. It's an interesting take on Indo-Chinese fusion, and one you'll also have to hit the menu to try.
That's not to say you'd be disappointed in the buffet. The curries are robustly spiced, thick and rich, with plenty of mainstay choices and the occasional outlier. The goat curry is a flavorful alternative to lamb, whose higher availability in the States, combined with a familiarity for diners, make it a much more common protein in American Indian restaurants. In India, goat is preferred. The meat's rich, gamey flavor, heightened from its proximity to the bone, makes for a robust curry.
You won't find lamb or goat — or any meat curries, actually — two doors down, past the Shirdi Sai Centre and, if there's a ritual happening, the shoes that lay in piles outside the temple's doors. That's where you'll find the Taj Chaat House, which focuses on vegetarian Indian cooking and snack foods served in a more relaxed atmosphere.
It starts with the large yellow menu over the kitchen. The pictures help, but don't be afraid to ask about something that looks interesting on the grill behind the counter. That's how I found the paneer bhurji, but I'll get to that in a second.
The slips of paper lining the front counter look similar, but each is different. There's the uthappam slip, for fluffy thick pancakes, and the dosa slip for thin but massive pancakes. The parathas slip lists buttery wheat breads with various fillings, and the subji section of several slips lists all the vegetable curries you can get standalone.
The rice slip lists nine different rices, the dessert slip lists 10 sweets and a chai, the chaat slip lists 14 snacks, and then, because everything needs a slip, there's a juice slip, with 12 options, including lassis and sugarcane drinks.
If you look confused, one of the women up front should take pity and help you order, asking about heat and the finished textures of breads. But when you get the hang of it, ordering here is actually quite simple. Put a mark next to what you want, turn over the slip to a smiling face, get your pager and wait.
There's no rhyme or reason to the food procession that follows. Cooks at various stations ping your pager the second they complete your slip. On my first visit I jumped up and down four times to retrieve the Styrofoam plates holding different dishes, and halfway through my meal, the restaurant that was at first completely empty was now ablaze in a sea of buzzing, blinking pagers.
The cooking here is more humble compared with Amruth's. The potato mixture in the masala dosa tastes only of potatoes, onions and turmeric. The eggplant curry is clean, almost bland.
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But the aforementioned paneer bhurji really stands out. The dish combines sautéed minced onions, chiles and spices with finely chopped Indian cheese. It resembles scrambled eggs, only reddish in color. My table mates used hunks of various breads like shovels to attack the oily curds.
There are more pickles available here, but they aren't as good as Amruth's. The coconut chutney is lifeless, the chile pickle an acrid paste, and the mango pickles are so salty only a devout fan will enjoy them. The simple limes, onions and fried chiles make much better condiments.
Still, the Taj Chaat house has something Amruth is missing — a charm and a sense of adventure found in its more obscure menu items. There's bhel puri, a puffed rice snack drenched in yogurt and chutneys, and golgappas, small, hollow, fried crisps that you fill with a watery tamarind sauce before popping in your mouth, where it explodes with tart flavors. There's pan, a leaf-wrapped digestive loaded with coconut, fennel and syrupy sugar, and Thumbs Up cola in the self-serve fridge.
On the whole, the place seems more interesting than Amruth next door. It's just not nearly as refined. Each is worth a visit, but if assessing pure quality is your goal, the pickles are your tell.