A Little Taste of Heaven
By now it's a fact of culinary life that South Florida restaurants open in strip malls. None of us really minds anymore. Although locating an eatery in a recessed shopping plaza can be somewhat frustrating when your stomach is growling, we in the culinary community understand that, unless restaurateurs are financially able to build their own freestanding cafés, they don't really have much choice but to exploit the available spaces.
What I don't understand is why anyone would choose to open an eatery in one of our less-than-appealing strip malls. Rent issues aside, I've never seen the point in damning a business by debuting in the epitome of a hole-in-the- shopping mall. Of course we have our flukes: Places like Cafe Maxx and Sunfish Grill have succeeded in what are (or were) some of the most unattractive examples of strip-mall architecture around.
The proprietors of Little India on West Oakland Park Boulevard in Sunrise are also gambling that their fare is good enough to overcome the location. Well, it is: The Indian cuisine is quite accomplished, with neatly balanced curries and pleasantly seasoned biryanis. Plus, the interior, with Indian prints on the walls and maroon-and-white double linens on the tables, is rather warm and cheery. But regardless, the location is the worst I've seen in some time. Not only is the five-month-old restaurant sunk deep into the middle of a neglected strip mall, said mall doesn't even face the major roadway. Instead it runs perpendicular to the main street, which means that you can't even see the Little India marquee while you're driving along. The staff tries to assist lost diners by giving them landmarks, so I'll do the same: Look for the Baby Love superstore, the Baby Love outlet store, and the discount maternity store, all of which are located in this complex. Or make it easier on yourself and ask the nearest pregnant woman, because she's likely the only one who will know exactly where you're talking about.
Unfortunately I don't have the option of moving the mountain to Mohammed. I can only tell you why we must visit the mountain. To mix monotheistic metaphors, the reasons to visit Little India are best described in terms of a culinary Ten Commandments -- or Ten Strong Suggestions, at the very least:
1.) Thou shalt not bow down to false tandoori dishes. I am generally a huge fan of anything broiled on skewers over charcoal in a tandoor, or clay oven, but far too often the tandoori meats I've sampled at various Indian restaurants around the counties have been tough and dry. And now Little India has made the pretenders look even worse by preparing a variety of chicken, lamb, and shrimp dishes as close to perfect as Mount Sinai is (supposedly) to Heaven. Marinated in yogurt, ginger, garlic, and other spices, the chicken was notably cooked to order, slick with juices and without the hard edges you see when it's been roasted and re-roasted. Diners can order chicken on the bone or in chunks as chicken tikka. The best way to sample both, in addition to savory lamb cubes and a pair of jumbo shrimp, is to order the mixed grill, which at $16.95 is the most expensive item on the menu. You'll never order tandoori anywhere else again.
2.) Thou shalt not make do without appetizers. Because Indian fare can be hearty and the portions here run on the satisfying side, you might be tempted to nibble on the zesty, complimentary pappadam crackers and wait for your main courses. Forget it. Asceticism isn't part of the experience here. The samosas, pastry turnovers filled with spiced peas and potatoes or ground lamb, and the pakori, shredded vegetables or chicken coated in a whole wheat batter and deep-fried, were lovely palate-teasers. The only objection we had was to the onion bhaji, deep-fried fritters that were just a little too greasy.
3.) Thou shalt not take condiments in vain. The small dishes of onion, tamarind, and mint chutneys are easy to overlook when your attention is caught and held by rich dishes such as the creamy chicken makhani; the buttery chicken korma, delicately flavored with almonds; or the lamb saagwala, hunks of fragrant meat stewed in creamed spinach. But these little sides pack quite the piquant wallop and are even more effective than sorbet for cleansing the palate.
4.) Thou shalt keep holy the lunch buffet. For one thing it's available every day, weekends included. For another it costs only $6.95. And finally we're talking about, oh, six or seven vegetable dishes, a couple of chicken items, appetizers, and desserts daily. Need I say more?
5.) Thou shalt honor thy customers' requests for level of spiciness. The menu notes that all dishes are served mild, medium, or hot. These are not dumbed-down categories. If you appreciate spicy fare, by all means ask for it hot. But if you like something a little less indigestion-inducing, stick to medium or mild, which don't mean flavorless.
6.) Thou shalt not kill the customers with kindness. In the couple of times I've dined at Little India, my party has been one of only a few there. Even so, servers were not oversolicitous. Instead they were competent and confident, taking back a spoiled bottle of wine one evening with a murmur of apology, allowing us to sit past closing time another evening without a word of complaint.
7.) Thou shalt not adulterate the Kingfisher beer. In other words don't even pour it into a glass. Drink it straight out of the bottle. The dark Kingfisher washes down the spicy dishes with a little more substance than the lager.
8.) Thou shalt not steal thy dining partner's portion of gulab jamun. No doubt you'll be tempted, because these "fried milk balls" are the Krispy Kreme of the Subcontinent. Here they arrive warm, in pairs, soaked in a thick sugar syrup. But I wouldn't risk it if I were you. Remember: In some cultures you lose a hand when you're caught stealing. And without hands you'll find it pretty darn hard to hold a fork.
9.) Thou shalt not lie about eating thy vegetables. And at Little India you don't have to. Indian cuisine has always been kind to vegetarians, presenting dozens of different and interesting ways to absorb those daily requirements. I'm partial to the aloo gobi, fresh cauliflower florets and diced potatoes that are sautéed "dry" -- meaning not in a heavy sauce -- with a slightly zesty coating of ginger, garlic, and onions. Chana masala was another winner, the garbanzos cooked to tenderness with pomegranate seeds, onions, and tomatoes, and finished with a just-tangy tamarind sauce. For something slightly off the beaten path, mushroom-and-pea masala combined the woodsy, chewy fungi with the sprightlier texture of fresh green peas and wrapped them in a mild but not meek curry.
10.) Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's naan. So order enough of your own, not too difficult to do given the ten or so varieties offered here. Plain naan, white-flour bread cooked on the walls of the tandoor, is always an excellent, mild complement to the piquant dishes. Garlic kulcha, a buttered flatbread dotted with garlic and coriander, and keema naan, stuffed with minced lamb, were flavorful on their own and can be consumed as a starter. If you don't know which you'd prefer, ask your server to bring a wide selection and identify each.
Actually, in the gastronomic world, there's an 11th absolute that all devotees must follow without question when you find a truly wonderful Indian restaurant: Thou shalt return. You won't have to command me twice.
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