Tandoori Junkie

A Guide to Indian Cuisine in Austin

Bismillah Restaurant
Bismillah Restaurant (Photo By John Anderson)

My first taste of anything even remotely resembling Indian cuisine was at a vaguely Indian, macrobiotic restaurant in Buda called the Jasmine Isle. It was a hippie-run establishment that only hinted at the true complexity of spices that Indian cuisine utilizes. At that time, there were also internationally themed potluck dinners held by the employees at the University Co-op that edged me ever closer to the true taste of India. That was followed by semi-regular visits to Shalimar, the first Indian restaurant in Austin, which held court in the Capital Plaza shopping center. It was there that I became a tandoori junkie, but I still knew little about the remainder of the galaxy of flavors that comprise true Indian cuisine.

Over the years Austin has absorbed (and discarded) several new Indian restaurants, most in the mode of the classic Americanized Indian dining establishment, featuring foods primarily from the northern states of India. These are the restaurants that feature bits and pieces of the Indian palette, with no real specialization to speak of. They take a broad stroke at the Indian canvas with a smattering of stews, casseroles, soups, salads, and breads. For most Austin tastes, this is adequate and well-appreciated, and Brahma bless those establishments for being here.

But within the past few years, we have been fortunate enough to attract a new class of Indian restaurants that specialize in the cuisines of particular regions and styles and appeal to the more sophisticated tastes of fans of the foods found in the Indian subcontinent. The following is a guide to the current Indian dining scene in Austin. Dining Indian can be an adventurous festival of feasts, and as in most cases (especially when it comes to ethnic dining), more is definitely better.

Bismillah Restaurant

1519 Anderson Ln., 420-1818

Daily, 11:30am-10:30pm

No credit cards

Austin's newest entry in the realm of Indian cuisines is Bismillah, which specializes in the food of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Northwestern India. It is located on Anderson Lane next to the railroad tracks, on the south side of the street between Burnet and Lamar, in a red brick building. Bismillah is a small, clean spot that is sparsely decorated, with eight tables (although as word gets out, they'll have to add more). Managed by Akram Abbasi, Bismillah provides the wonderful flavors of the Sufi Muslims, which are like a blend of India and the Near East. We dined there last week and had a delightful meal of mixed vegetable pakora ($3.99) -- a generous portion of veggie fritters in a spicy batter -- served with a tart and piquant yogurt sauce with mint and green chile.

We followed that with a deliciously spiced kofta shish kabob ($4.50) of minced beef served with a large salad plate and excellent naan bread. The complexity of flavor that results from mere minced beef is astounding, and in terms of value and taste, it far surpasses any pedestrian hamburger. Next up was an intensely spiced beef curry (Nhari, $4.50) that sears and teases the tongue with an array of spices and ginger with incredibly tender meat. Our next exploration was the mutton korma ($5.50), which is unctuously succulent with a flavor redolent of cardamom. We capped the meal off with a mango smoothie with milk ($1.99) that cooled the tongue and relaxed the palette.

Bismillah serves only halal meats (the Muslim equivalent to Kosher) and in the near future will have a lunch buffet up and running, and they also provide catering. Great prices, friendly and helpful service, and fantastic flavors will have us returning often.

Bombay Grill

3201 Bee Caves Rd., 329-0234

Mon-Fri, 11am-2:30pm, 5:30-9:30pm; Sat-Sun, 5:30-9:30pm

Star of India

2900 W. Anderson, 452-8199

2601 S. I-35, Round Rock, 244-2222

Mon-Fri, 11am-2:30pm, 5:30-9:30pm; Sat-Sun, 5:30-9:30pm

All three of these restaurants are owned by the same family and share the same menu, and they are perhaps the best-known mini-chain of Austin's Indian restaurants. Austinites are most familiar with their lunch buffet ($6.95), which offers up a nice variety of predominantly Northern Indian cuisine. The buffet enjoys huge crowds daily at all three restaurants, and the choices are sure to please both carnivore and vegetarian alike. But the chain really shines with its menu options, which should be enjoyed more often by Austin's dining public.

Perhaps the best overall introduction to their food is the Maharaja Dinner ($19.95, and large enough to be shared), which offers a huge selection of dishes from appetizers to entrée. Included are samosas, prawns, lamb, chicken, and vegetables with pilau rice. The vegetarian version is the Vegetable Bhojan ($11.95), which offers a vegan version of pulses (edible seeds), vegetables, homemade cheese, and rice. Bombay's mixed grill ($11.95) provides the most Texan-friendly combination of tandoori grilled items, juicy and sealed with spices from the high-temperature vertical ovens.

But branch out and try the luscious cream and almond korma stews, the tangy vindaloo curries, or the chile-spiced bhuna dishes for a better take on their dishes. The chain covers all of the most familiar bases, and is perhaps the easiest for diners who might be squeamish about eating Indian food. All of the meat, poultry, and seafood entrées run in the $9-$11 range, with vegetarian dishes averaging about $7.50. The décor of all three restaurants is inviting and cozy, and the staff helpful and efficient. And their dependability is a reason that they are Austin's oldest Indian restaurants.

The Clay Pit

1601 Guadalupe, 322-5131
Madras Pavilion
Madras Pavilion (Photo By John Anderson)

Mon-Fri, lunch, 11am-2pm; happy hour, 4-6pm;

Sun-Thu, dinner, 5-10pm; Sat, dinner, 5-11pm

The "clay pit" refers to the tandoori oven that is the hallmark of Northern Indian cuisine, and Clay Pit aptly describes itself as providing "contemporary" Indian cuisine. What you'll find here is traditional Indian cuisine prepared with a modern twist, such as superbly finished sauces with updated meats and seafood, or conventional meats with fusion finishes. That creativity comes courtesy of Chef Maqbool Ahmed, who served with the exclusive Oberoi International Hotel chain for 25 years.

Located in the historic Bertram Building, Clay Pit welcomes the diner with a luxurious and comfortable interior. The service is the standard that should be found at every restaurant in town: unobtrusive and highly efficient. Unlike every other Indian restaurant in the area, Clay Pit offers an extensive wine list and top-shelf bar service. At lunch during the week, they serve a buffet for $6.50 that offers a limited assortment of some of their dishes, and a menu that gives only a hint of the treasures to be found at night.

The nightly menu is where Clay Pit really shines; that's when the chef can impress unrestrained. We began our meal with the Curried Mussels ($7.50), which arrive in an aromatic, ethereal garlic curry sauce. When the mussels disappeared, the sauce quickly followed suit, sopped up with naan. The pleasantly spiced Punjabi-style beef samosas ($3.50) are encased in a golden flaky crust, and vanished immediately. Chef Ahmed's version of the Moghul chicken korma, Khuroos-E-Tursh ($13.95) arrives in a complex creamy sauce that we have decided is the best offered in town, and the saffron- and yogurt-marinated Boti Lamb Kabob ($14.95) is crispy on the outside, but meltingly tender and flavorful on the inside.

Clay Pit raises the bar for all other Indian restaurants in Austin, and unless you're a strict stickler for authenticity, it offers the most elevated example of the foods of the region. The impressive combination of sumptuous surroundings, superb service, and classic yet contemporary cuisine can't be beat.

Little Bombay

9616 N. Lamar, Ste. 195, 339-0808

Tue-Sun, 11:30am-9:30pm

Little Bombay is the small, wildly popular vegetarian restaurant specializing in the fast foods of South India. These are the kind of items that one might purchase from street food vendors if you were in India. The dishes are authentically spiced with layer upon layer of complex flavors that unfold with every bite. It is a pocket-sized space with limited seating and few tables. It is not uncommon to see folks having impromptu tailgate food feasts at or in their cars in the parking lot, especially on days with nice weather.

The menu at Little Bombay is limited, but all of the items are inexpensive and perfected. We lean toward the items marked with two stars, which means that they are spicy. There are five different dosas (large rice flour crepes) offered, and our favorites are the Mysore Dosa ($4.95), which, stuffed with a heavily spiced tomato and onion combination, is piquant. The other fave is the Cheese Dosa ($5.95), which is folded around a filling of homemade paneer cheese, cilantro, chiles, and onions. Both are served with sambar (lentil curry) and chutney.

Another favorite is the Pani Puri ($2.95), which are seven golf-ball-sized round bread puffs partially filled with spiced garbanzos and a sweet sauce. You fill the cavity with a thin, spicy mint broth and pop them in your mouth. They're similar to a crunchy Indian version of the Chinese soup dumplings. The Tomato Omelet ($2.50) is composed of two chickpea patties layered with spiced tomatoes and onions, and served with a sweet and sour sauce. A delightful "sandwich" ($3.99) at Little Bombay consists of pieces of flatbread stuffed with an aromatic sauté of vegetables and sliced paneer cheese.

Little Bombay is a great place to go when you want a flavorful and healthy snack or a light meal. They have a menu with more than 25 items, and we guarantee you'll find something that will fill that empty spot perfectly.

Madras Pavilion

9025 Research Blvd., Ste. 100, 719-5575

Mon-Fri, 11:30am-3pm, 5:30-9:30pm;

Sat-Sun, 11:30am-10pm, buffet from 11:30am-3:30pm

Madras Pavilion, a highly acclaimed chain, now has a unit in town, with branches also in Dallas, Houston, and, soon, Sugarland. They feature delicious and authentic vegetarian cuisine from the south of India, and our Indian friends have all declared it the standard by which all Indian vegetarian food in Austin should be judged. They are located on the east end of the two-story brick strip center on the northeast corner of Research and Burnet; the décor is unassuming yet pleasant.

The daily lunch buffet ($6.95 weekdays, $8.95 weekends) is superb. We went during the week and found a varied assortment of treats that would satisfy even the most devout carnivore. We opened with lentil soup that has deceptive layers of flavor unfolding with every bite. Next were light-as-air steamed rice cakes (iddly) that we dipped in a hot and sour tamarind broth. The fried lentil donuts (medhu vada) are crisp, golden circles of spicy lentil batter, delightful when dipped in the broth, raita, or any of the five different chutneys offered.

Next were five differently spiced vegetable dishes (pongal, avial, kooto, korma, poriyal) served with white and tamarind rices; all are incredible. Add in the chappati and papad breads and you have a feast. But then the waiter came over and informed us that as part of the meal, we also got a prepared-to-order dosa, which is a foot long, thin rice crepe filled with a spicy potato and vegetable melange. It was heavenly. Top it all off with a refreshingly light mango pudding swimming with cubes of impeccably fresh fruit for the perfect ending. We were filled to the gills, and not the least bit uncomfortable.

Swad Indian Vegetarian Restaurant
Swad Indian Vegetarian Restaurant (Photo By John Anderson)

Dinner at Madras before a movie found us dining on an onion and chile uthappam ($5.99), a large, light pizza-like bread topped with baked onions and chiles. Very tasty, and far superior to an actual pizza, in our opinion. Palak paneer ($7.99) was next, and the blend of homemade cheese with spinach is one of the finest versions in town. Of course there was the accompaniment of chutneys and pickles as well. Madras has a finesse with complex spicing that is hard to beat in Austin, and whether you're a vegetarian or not, you'll leave the restaurant with a smile. We can't wait to try the weekend buffet next.

Sarovar

8440 Burnet, 454-8636

Mon-Fri, 11am-2:30pm, 5-10pm;

Sat-Sun, 5-10pm

Sarovar created a huge buzz when it opened a few years ago because at that time, it was the only restaurant in town offering selections from the south of India. They are located in the strip center at the southwest corner of Research and Burnet, in the far south end of the center. Sarovar, like Madras Pavilion and Bombay Grill, is part of a chain, with locations in Milpitas and Sunnyvale, Calif. The restaurant is large and open, with a cozy yet airy feel.

Sarovar has by far the largest menu in town, including 18 appetizers, 22 different South Indian specialties, and 25 vegetarian items, comprising a grand total of 174 separate items on the menu. One problem with a menu this large is that there just isn't enough room for adequate descriptions of all the dishes, which can be troubling for non-natives. And no matter how well-versed the waitstaff is, to be able to explain the subtleties of that many dishes to an inquisitive public would be difficult at best. So prior to heading to Sarovar, a little research never hurts.

They have a buffet at lunch ($6.95) with a wide assortment of items available, and the flavors are fine and authentically reproduced. Our one gripe at the buffet is that the offerings aren't the most exciting items offered on the menu, and as such aren't really representative of what they could be. The waitstaff during the buffet can be easily overwhelmed, or perhaps they are just indifferent. At any rate, and as with most restaurants, the lunch buffet shouldn't be the judge of a restaurant's overall quality.

Where Sarovar shines is when the diner orders from the menu, and puts a little thought into it before doing so. We have had many delightful meals at Sarovar, and made some discoveries in the process. The Chilly Pakora ($3.95) is scorchingly hot and delicious, and a dab of yogurt raita will balance the mouth nicely before the rest of the meal arrives. The Idli Sambar ($3.95) are especially light and tasty, and the Dosas ($3.50 to $3.95) are a delight. The Chicken Khoorma ($8.95) is an especially rich and flavorful version, and the Chicken Hyderabadi ($8.95) perfectly expresses the spice trade influence with a kiss of cinnamon and clove. All of the entrées at Sarovar may be had a la carte, or as complete dinners for an additional three dollars.

Swad Indian Vegetarian Restaurant

9515 N. Lamar, Ste. 156, 997-7923

Mon-Fri, 11:30am-2:30pm, 5-9:30pm; Sat-Sun, 11:30am-9:30pm

Swad (and the Taj Market a few doors down) are both owned by Manhar Patel, and Swad likes to emphasize that they make every item fresh from scratch daily. This of course implies that their competitors do not, but the folks at the counter wouldn't dish any dirt. Swad specializes in South Indian vegetarian cuisine, especially from the state of Gujarat, in Western India. It has 12 tables and minimal decoration (with, oddly enough, an Africanesque mural on one wall), and the staff are friendly and helpful. Most of the dishes are served on disposable ware, and water pitchers are on each table with Styrofoam cups.

The ideal introduction to the food at Swad is probably the Thalli Plate ($6.95). It's a sampler of many items, served in a round tray. "Thalli" is the Hindu word for a plate made from a banana leaf, and it is believed that food must be arranged in a certain order on the leaf. On our last visit we had this dish, and were amazed at the variety of tastes included. It is composed of many elements, including a marvelous sambar lentil stew, a dish of rasam broth, and a curry of potatoes, peas, and cauliflower. Next to that was a spiced cabbage and onion salad, a spicy yogurt dip, several round, fried vegetable fritters, raita (cucumber and yogurt salad), lime pickle, four roti breads, two crispy papad wafers, and two delectable guabjambu (small round "doughnuts" swimming in a sweet mint syrup). It was the ideal amount of food, and the variety keeps you guessing with each bite.

The menu at Swad covers many of the items so dear to fans of southern Indian vegetarian cuisine. You will find a whole range of pakoras (vegetable fritters, $2.95) and 10 different dosas ($4-$6), as well as 19 different appetizers that vary from $3-$5. It is the ideal spot to stop after shopping at Taj Market, and they are experienced at catering when you're planning that next soiree.

Taj Palace

6700 Middle Fiskville Rd., 452-9959

Mon-Thu, 11am-2pm, 5:30-10pm; Fri-Sat, 10:30pm; Sat-Sun, 11:30am-2:30pm

Because of their popular buffet, Taj Palace is a big favorite of Austin's native Indian lunch crowd. Taj Palace is the second-oldest of Austin's Indian restaurants. The interior is darkened and elegant, giving the diner a sheltered feeling, with no sound from the nearby freeway able to work its way inside. The service is friendly and helpful, and make menu suggestions when asked.

Taj Palace specializes in the royal or court cuisine of northern India, which is heavily influenced by the Moghuls, and offers some dishes not found elsewhere in town. As a rule, these dishes are thought to be more refined and sophisticated than the foods of the south. Examples include Shahi Korma ($11.50 lamb, $10.95 beef), a curry of richly spiced cream with almonds and nuts, or Jahangiri Kofte ($10.50), which is a dish of tender lamb meatballs that have been stuffed with cashews and raisins, then simmered in a spiced curry cream sauce.

A couple of chicken favorites at Taj are the Chat Chicken Salad ($4.50), which uses tender tandoori chicken mixed with potatoes and cucumbers dressed in a tangy sauce. Another popular dish is the Reshmi Chicken Kabob ($10.95), made from minced chicken molded around a skewer and baked in the tandoori oven. It absolutely melts in your mouth.

Taj Palace is just another example of the unbelievable range of flavors that diners in Austin can feast on, and although they have some of the same items in common with other Austin Indian restaurants, they present another facet for the Indian dining public.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Swad Indian Vegetarian Restaurant, Taj Palace, Sarovar, Madras Pavilion, Clay Pit, Bismillah Restaurant, Bombay Grill, Star of India

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