Familiarity Breeds Contentment
Photo by Jack GoulThe many regional cuisines of India are amazingly diverse, but you wouldn't know that by dining in Orange County's Indian restaurants. These places are dominated by one type of cooking: the tandoori of India's northernmost reaches, the mountainous region of Punjab that also encompasses a stretch of eastern Pakistan. It's one of the oldest cooking styles, a merging of central Asian cultures with no regard for religion or political border. I've eaten tandoori cooking in Pakistani, Afghani and Nepalese restaurants, and the differences are miniscule.
The centerpiece of tandoori cooking is a clay oven, in which meats and naan breads are cooked. These meats—mostly chicken and lamb—are served dry with infused spices (the orange tint you see on chicken tikka, for example) or in savory curry gravies, like masala or vindaloo. Standard vegetable dishes include saag paneer (spinach and cubed cheese) and appetizer samosas and pakoras. Even if you can't remember their names, you know this food well.
When tandoori-style cooking is done right, it's among the most delicious you can find, and you'll find no greater example of basic tandoori cooking in Orange County than at Punjab in Fountain Valley. There is absolutely nothing distinctive about the place, at home in a typically faceless strip mall; its mauve interior comes straight out of a restaurant warehouse catalog. And the nonstop Hindu song playing in the background seems to be the same damn song I've heard at every other Indian restaurant, and it never ends; it is catchy in an annoying way. Nor is Punjab daring: its cuisine is completely predictable; it features every dish you're familiar with and nothing more.
Punjab is a mutt you can't help but love. It is loyal. There's only one reason to feel this way, and that's because the food at Punjab—as predicable and standard as it is—is solid, delicious and affordable. Punjab makes tandoori the way a good Mexican place cooks carnitas or a fine barbecue joint grills baby back ribs.
Start with the "mixed hors d'oeuvres," featuring a smattering of your favorites—tender chicken tikka bits, savory ground-lamb kebabs, pea-and-potato-packed samosa pastries and crispy vegetable pakoras. Along with a bowl of rich lentil soup (yum!), it can easily make a meal for one—and for $7.45, too.
But then you'd be missing out on the entrées, a mix of tandoori meats and curry dishes of chicken, lamb and seafood, most of which cost less than $10. There are two absolutely basic dishes in this milieu, the aforementioned chicken tikka with its tender, orange chunks of fowl cooked in the clay oven, and chicken tikka masala, which takes these same chicken chunks and slathers them with a rich, creamy, tomato-based curry gravy. Every non-vegetarian Indian restaurant serves these two, and they all serve them reasonably well. Punjab rates highly with both, especially with its wow-inducing masala gravy, which has a distinctive touch of peas.
I get flavor flashbacks thinking about the lamb boti kebab masala, a masala gravy over lamb chunks cooked kebab-style in said clay oven. It's just about the most tender lamb you can eat, perfect with the gravy, piled atop basmati rice and scooped up into freshly cooked garlic naan.
The curry gravies accompanying these meats are all familiar—vindaloo, saag, bhuna, jalfrezi, korma and karahi. One dish that's not completely predictable (someone in the Punjab kitchen must have been hammering the Kingfisher when this one came up) is the chicken Madras. Amid the tandoori chicken chunks and basmati rice there's a wonderfully pungent curry gravy that looks like thick pumpkin soup. This is a real curry-lover's curry—rich and spicy and with a taste that stays with you deep into the next day. As former invading British officers might have said, jolly well done.
Punjab, Cuisine of India, located at 18687 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, is open daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10 p.m. (714) 963-6777. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $25-$35, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
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