Weary of soy protein and veggie burgers from Meatless Mondays gone by, I had set my sights this go around on exotic flavors and spices. My search for bargain vegetarian nirvana took me to Mumtaz, an Indian restaurant located in a generic Richardson strip mall at Campbell and Central.
I'm typically very wary of buffets -- I have a recurring nightmare where I'm forced to eat at Golden Corral and witness snot-nosed redneck children sticking their dirty fingers in the chocolate fountain -- but Indian food seems to be the exception to the rule. The mainstays of curry, rice and naan seem to lend themselves pretty well to sitting in a steam table without suffering too much.
The atmosphere wasn't much to write home about: fabrics of coral and maroon, ornate gold embroidery on the tablecloths, cheap vinyl-backed chairs. India's answer to MTV played on the television, surrounded by framed pictures of the Taj Mahal. Most of the tables were occupied by groups of suits on their midday break or couples in track pants fresh from the gym.
The buffet held a kaleidoscope of vegetarian options. I loaded up my plate, paying little attention to the various meat offerings (chicken, chicken, goat, and more chicken). I skipped the iceberg-heavy salad offered alongside a vat of industrial ranch dressing and the madras soup; billed as tomato and coconut soup, its one-dimensional, overly sweet flavor was reminiscent of the Campbell's of my youth.
I went instead for the array of traditional condiments next to them: intensely tangy, neon red tamarind chutney and its emerald green mint counterpart, plus cooling cucumber raita (pay attention to the labels, lest you mistake it for the ranch).
The vegetable pakoras were assorted vegetable fritters, individually tempura-battered and deep fried. The deeply golden, irregularly shaped pieces gave little clue as to what was inside; you have to bite in to discover slices of potato or eggplant, or maybe chunks of cauliflower.
The rice pillau was expertly cooked, each grain of fragrant basmati perfectly distinct and separate, and punctuated throughout with bright green peas and almonds. It was the perfect accompaniment to soak up the chana paneer, a new-to-me dish of chickpeas and cubes of fresh cheese in a vibrant orange sauce spiced with coriander and cumin, among other things.
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Dishes like this are why Indian food is so great for going meatless; because there's a large population of Indian Buddhists who practice vegetarianism, the cuisine offers a wide array of interesting, diverse dishes to cater towards that sect, without relying on tofu or meat substitutes. A meatless Indian lunch doesn't feel like it's missing anything. The sauces and condiments are flavorful and varied enough that it doesn't really matter much whether they're covering chicken or chickpeas.
I went back twice for more of the warm, pillowy naan, its soft texture and gentle yeasty flavor a perfect vehicle for any and everything on my plate; scooping up some of the relatively pedestrian mixed vegetable curry or gently spiced saag (creamy spinach with cumin and coriander) and smearing it with any of the condiments made for a symphony of spices on my tongue.
Did I mention the lunch buffet is only $5.99 on Mondays? (It's $6.95 on Monday night, and only a buck or two more during the rest of the week.) Last time I checked, one could hardly get a drive-through meal for that, and the food here was hot and fresh and constantly replenished. Even after drink and tip, I was out of there for under ten bucks.
Meatless Monday comrades, get thee to Mumtaz for cheap vegetarian delights; your palate will never miss the meat and your wallet will thank you.