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2 Ways to Go North : A couple of restaurants take divergent paths to regional Indian cuisine.

June 18, 1998|MAX JACOBSON

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES — I recently visited two restaurants that, like the overwhelming majority of Indian places, focus mainly on northern Indian food. Interestingly, though, they were almost totally different from each other.

Punjab, the more Americanized of the two, openly declares its northern Indian (Punjabi) affinities in its name. It's a true family restaurant; the owners let their small children frolic in the area between the kitchen and the dining room during business hours.

Not long ago, this Fountain Valley space housed a Pakistani restaurant with the euphonious name Rim Jhim. The new owners have renovated and added a slew of attractive crafts and paintings. The tables have pink tablecloths, a color that complements the well-chosen art.

Chef Kuldup Singh comes from Kabab Curry, a very good Indian restaurant in Torrance. He's talented--and his food tends to be embarrassingly rich.

His best appetizer is probably the tandoori chicken wings; at $4.50, they're easily the bargain of the menu. You get a sizzling platter of eight or nine wings--not the paltry drummettes that chain restaurants serve, but the full wings--coated in spices and artfully browned around the edges. They are delicious, particularly when eaten with the sizzling onions that come on the serving platter.

I'm less enamored of the deep-fried vegetable fritters (pakoras), which are tasty but practically all batter. I'd rather have bigger pieces of cauliflower, peppers and onions than the bits of chopped vegetables buried in all this garbanzo-flour batter.

Tandoori chicken and lamb tikka--both cooked in a clay oven (tandoor), of course--are modestly spiced. The fish tikka kebab is particularly worth ordering because this kitchen uses swordfish instead of the more usual, and less flavorful, mahi-mahi.

One house specialty is lamb tikka masala, in which cubed lamb is cooked in the tandoor and then smothered in a rich, creamy pink sauce with a subtle hotness. The tandoori breads--naan, roti and the chewy whole-wheat flat bread called paratha--are also top-notch.

Naturally, you'll find the trademark northern Indian vegetable dishes, most too oily for my taste, I regret to say. The bhindi masala is fresh okra sauteed with onions, tomatoes and spices; it tends to be bland unless you can persuade the kitchen to spice it up. Saag paneer, for hearty appetites, consists of spinach and cubes of homemade cheese in a thick cream sauce.

There's no faulting the pillao rice, made from fragrant, high-quality basmati rice. A trip to Punjab is, generally speaking, a pleasant, if rather filling, journey.

Punjab is moderately priced. Appetizers are $1.50 to $5.95. Tandoor entrees are $6.95 to $14.95. Vegetable dishes are $5.95 to $7.95.

*

Punjab is a handsome, sit-down restaurant. India Sweets and Spices, by contrast, is a grocery and video store as well as a cafeteria-style vegetarian restaurant. In fact, it's a branch of a chain that caters to a mostly Indian clientele. Accordingly, the food is searingly authentic; no two dishes are spiced alike. It's as good a representation of real Indian cooking as you can find anywhere in these parts.

When I describe it as cafeteria-style, what I mean is that you order food from the counter, and it's either prepared in a back kitchen or dished up from a steam table. If you want to eat there, you dine on pink plastic benches, from disposable plastic trays.

In short, India Sweets and Spices is unpretentious in the extreme. But everything is fresh, colorful, bursting with flavor--and obscenely inexpensive. I brought five people on my last visit, and we ate our fill for under $20.

Start with the thickest, creamiest mango milkshake anywhere, then progress to hearty, satisfying all-Indian dishes such as stewed garbanzo beans, bell peppers mixed with potatoes and curried squash and the familiar spinach with homemade cheese, to name a few.

There are a couple of southern Indian specialties, such as masala dosa, a rolled lentil flour crepe stuffed with curried potatoes; call it a giant, crispy potato taco. Another is utthappam, more or less a Cream of Wheat pancake topped with tomatoes and onions.

The huge complete lunches include two vegetable dishes plus rice, lentils, pickles, onions, mint sauce, tamarind sauce and yogurt laced with minced cucumbers and carrots (raita). For a dollar extra, you also get pakoras and a fried samosa stuffed with potatoes, peas and spiced cashews.

You'll definitely want to try a few of the Indian sweets referred to in the restaurant's name. My favorite is burfi (a name often--more correctly, but less appetizingly--spelled barfi), a sort of dense milk fudge topped with edible silver. A number of flavors are available, including cashew, pistachio, almond and coconut.

Gulab jamun, another sweet based on boiled-down milk, looks like golden brown golf balls in syrup, served warm.

Kids love jalebi, a lattice-shaped batter fritter--a crisp tangle of fried flour tubes--drenched in honey. Ras malai may strike you as hockey pucks in cream sauce until you experience the sweet cheese flavor and meltingly soft texture.

To accompany the sweets is masala tea, with milk and spices: terrific, with a musky finish. In India, you could get tea like this on the street, poured into thimble-sized metal cups for around a nickel a shot. Here it's a whopping 50 cents--still a whole lot cheaper than flying halfway around the world.

India Sweets and Spices is inexpensive. Complete lunches are $2.99-$3.99. Snacks are $1.50. Sweets are $1.50-$2.99.

BE THERE

* Punjab, 18687 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley. (714) 963-6777. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. daily. MasterCard and Visa.

* India Sweets and Spices, 14441 Newport Ave., Tustin. (714) 731-2910. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Monday. Cash only.

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