Maybe the prognosticators were right, those who said the next great wave in restaurant trends is Indian fast food. This is counterintuitive on its face. Indian cuisine is by nature complex, a jet stream of reverent aromas that blast the mind into reflection in a way a sub with provolone or a Philly with herbed Cheez Whiz never could. Maybe this is why so many fast-food meals come with toys. You can't bore the mind with ketchup pouches and burrito supremacy and expect repeat business. The toy at least stimulates the mind.
You know Indian cuisine will have fully conquered the fast casual segment when you can order it by numbers. There it is up there on the menu board, glowing in saffron: No. 3, a double paneer chicken vindaloo with biggie samosas (delicious with terrific dipping sauces) and mango lassi in a Hulk mug, $4.52. "How would you like your sauce, moist-eyed, streaming tears or full blown spasmodic sob?"
Imagine Indian cuisine through a pickup window (oil cloth bibs instead of napkins and moist towelettes). It's coming. Trust us. There's nowhere left for restaurant architecture to evolve. We already have...
Vegetable samosas $2.50
Hot wings $2.50
Lamb curry house $8.50
Chicken tikka tandoori $7.95
Shrimp noodle street $8.95
Shrimp fried rice $8.95
Mango lassi $1.50
Look at this. The Café Roti menu has a puzzle. They call it "Curry House." Let's give it a try. Step 1, select vegetable, paneer (homemade cheese), chicken, lamb or shrimp. Lamb is a slam-dunk. Step 2, select one of the following: masala (a creamy tomato herb based sauce, our favorite), curry (traditional Indian sauce), balti (North Indian sauce with exotic herbs and spices, a must-try) saag (creamy spinach, a family favorite) and vindaloo (very hot South Indian sauce with potatoes).
Let's kick out "traditional" (curry) and "very hot" (vindaloo) right off the bat and focus on "our favorite," "a must try," and "a family favorite." Kick out the favorites and go for the "must." "Mild, medium or hot?" she asks after pushing the buttons on the fast casual command console. We opt for streaming tears--a good medium.
But first, we have a mug of tomato herb soup. Squint really hard, and it resembles a ladle of Campbell's. But sip it, chew the slosh as if it were a stripe of baseball-card gum, and it opens into a marvel of precision. The tangy layer gets the mouth to sweat while a lacy layer of sweetness haunts the finish. Yet the texture is creamy--not a wet blanket creaminess that gunks the spaces between the taste buds but a shimmering creaminess that slips between them like a strip of Hermés. Cilantro rests on the surface like a cluster of expired mayflies on a lake.
So, too, must we contend with the mango lassi, that beverage rendered from mango and yogurt. It's the color of terra cotta with the consistency of a fine hand lotion. It arrives in a clear plastic cup with a clear plastic lid stabbed through the heart with a clear plastic straw. Presumably, this is so you can watch the pastel liquid ascend through the straw into your body. It's like you're drinking the blood from South Beach like some hip vampire. The lassi surface is pebbled with crushed pistachios.
Yet we haven't discussed how this all works. Café Roti is a counter-service establishment. There's a curvaceous counter with a base done up in bright red mosaic tiles and a menu board from which to order. A sitting area, one with little tables clothed in newspapers and snuggy plush burgundy chairs, is installed for those waiting for their meals to be clam-shelled and bagged for to-go runs. For those who wish to stay, there are booths with stainless steel tables and a wall with large framed jars of mustard powder, cumin, coriander seed and red pepper flakes. Each jar has a label. What kind of person scans these things and remembers the labels? The kind yearning for fast-food toys.
Yet look at this section on the lower right hand corner of the menu. Kid Meal: Meal 1, chicken nuggets and fries. But then there's this: Meal 2, daal, rice/naan and fries. Meal 1 is for those kids with GameBoy holsters and pressure-sensitive blinking LEDs embedded in their Nike soles. Meal 2 is for kids who can brush out a still life as well as Rembrandt and bow Eminem tunes on viola (while rapping).
Admit it. You hated the sort of cultured kid who could eat a Meal 2. They made you feel as low as a chicken nugget under a Nike sole with blinking LEDs. Erase those bad memories and enter the adult comfort zone with hot wings. They arrive in a white bowl, sitting in an orange juice, a fluid with flavor complexities that wouldn't dare tickle a Hooters. The wing exterior is crisp, at least on those not bathing in the sauce, which hovers dangerously between streaming tears and full spasmodic sob. The interior is moist.
Our kid doesn't do a Meal 1 or Meal 2. She does a noodle dish; an oriental number with shrimp. The shrimp are fine: moist and firm with flavors that are neither rich nor vapid nor sudsy. They're in a tangle of thick noodles--cables, really--that entangle water chestnuts, carrots, onion and pea pods, the latter with some blemishes. But this is fast food.
Curry House arrives, the third (unlisted) step in the process. Lamb with balti is on a simple white plate. A half-moon of rice, supple and separate, grins with a saffron-stained smirk. The expression nudges into the serious smear of brown--the balti--bumped with pieces of lamb. The lamb is tough and dry. It's hard to chew. Better just to suck the sauce from it, savoring the flits of clove, coriander and cumin. But then you can't really do anything with the spent lamb pieces that wouldn't be untoward even in a fast casual place. So you chew and swallow. And it isn't all bad. The lamb adds a rough-hewn sweetness to it, even if your jaws lock.
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I expected the same jaw-lock from the chicken tandoori. The dish usually results in pieces of arid, leathery bird bosom dyed the color of Hooters hot pants. But this is clean slices of chicken breast. The meat is moist and rimmed with the shade of blinding orange found in "traffic fines double" road-construction warning signs. The shade fades to yellow as you reach the interior of the meat. The slices rest on a webwork of bell pepper and onion strips. It's tasty.
Chicken in the chicken saag bumped the saag cloak like the lamb bumped the balti. It was also dry. The dark swamp of creamy spinach was good, with rough minces of leaf, giving it a texture beyond strained baby foods.
But here's the problem: Shrimp fried rice smelled of Sterno. Sure, it had a generous spread of plump shrimp, a little sudsy. There were lots of bell pepper, onion and pea pods. Broccoli florets and carrot shavings peeked through. The rice was separate and fluffy. But when you feel like you're a moment away from stir-fry flambé, well...
Café Roti is the work of Pardeep Sharma, who created Indian Palace and Mantra. And he proves one thing here: The worst day of fast Indian food is infinitely better than the best day of virtually any other fast food. Toys be damned. 6509 W. Park Blvd., Suite 420, 972-403-7600. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. $-$$