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Traditions isn’t much to look at from the outside, but its delectable Indian dishes will sear themselves into your memory—and your taste buds
Traditions isn’t in a pretty part of Tustin. The building it now occupies was abandoned by Roderick’s—the kind of nightclub-turned-restaurant that looked best in the dark. In the harsh light of day, the place reeked of urban blight, weather-worn and tired. The stand-alone structure, beside a gas station, is dusty and adrift on the hot asphalt parking lot of a nearly-treeless mini-mall.
Once you walk through its doors, you enter a dimly lit sanctuary decorated with peacock feathers and cooled by a hard-working a/c system. Also in the air: the syncopated rhythms of Indian drums and the bold aromas of what could only be Indian cooking. You forget for a time that your car is still outside, slowly baking in the hot sun, ready to scorch your bare skin. Right now, you’ve got something else on your mind: Lunch! At discount rates, to boot!
14131 Red Hill Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780
For the grand opening, the price of the weekday lunch buffet is set at $6.99. Even with the stipulation that a drink purchase of $2 is required to get the deal, it’s the lowest cost for an Indian buffet in Tustin, where at least four other Indian restaurants compete within blocks of one another. Traditions gets most of its business during this time. Customers load their plates greedily, dousing mountains of free-flowing basmati rice with tomato-tinged chicken tikka masala, fluffy saag paneer and deep-fried cauliflower.
But as good as the buffet is, it only hints at what the kitchen can really do. Dinner time finds delicacies that will never see the chafing tray—dishes only cooked when you order them from the jewel-encrusted menu. Supper is prime time for the North Indian chef and begins with a surprise that comes with the complimentary papadum, wafer-crisp discs flecked with cumin seeds. You expect the mint chutney and the tamarind chutney, but not the pickled carrots soaked in ghee.
The chef also knows how to bake exceedingly well. The naan isn’t free (though it is during lunch), but you should order it anyway. It exists in bubble-puffed, hand-patted amoeba shapes, oven-hot and tender, possibly the best I’ve had. Unlike at many Indian places, the dough hasn’t been overworked. For $1 more, they’ll spread a layer of ruddy, finely diced lamb between layers and call it keema naan. Better still is the kulcha, a floppy quesadilla doppelgänger that has cheese, nuts, raisins, potatoes and maraschino cherries mashed flat as stuffing. There are six more tempting tandoor-baked breads that I still need to try on future trips.
I have, however, conquered all of their excellent soups. I slurped up the gently spiced, soothing lentil soup during the lunch buffet. The tomato soup tasted like cream of tomato if it were strained through a curry-flavored sieve. The mulatwani soup is only available during dinner and is easily the heartiest of them all: chicken strips and diced vegetables in a dark, almost-too-salty broth. But the mango-and-corn soup trumps the others. It starts smoothie-sweet and finishes with an unexpected salvo of spice. This one must be tried, even when it seems odd to be sipping hot soup when it’s 90 degrees outside.
Other starters stick close to the tried-and-true: mostly deep-fried arrangements of samosas, pakoras in chicken or veggie, or a combo plate of them all paired with shish kebab and chicken tikka. But the aloo chat appetizer—roasted potatoes and chickpeas pulsing dangerously in a thick coat of red-pepper dust—can double as a side dish.
Since it’s served dry, it functions well when paired with the main dishes, which are predominantly buried in gravies so thick they stick to your serving spoon. A brown, blubbery, sweet-and-spicy one hides generous chunks of lamb in the shahi korma. Beneath another creamy sauce, homemade vegetable rolls akin to potato fritters simmer in their mali kofta.
In all the dishes, spice levels can be adjusted. Napalm-strength chili paste can be requested for extra oomph if you are feeling masochistic. And if you overdo it, you can calm the burn with a milky gulab jamun soaked in honey syrup for dessert. Or perhaps with a strawberry lassi or a strawberry shake. Either way, if you came for dinner, that car of yours should’ve cooled off by now. Unlike your mouth.
Traditions, 14131 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 508-5959; traditionsfood.com. Open Wed.-Mon., lunch buffet, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Lunch buffet, $6.99 with $2 drink purchase (limited offer); dinner entrées, $10.95-$18.95.