Photo by Joy BastImagine yourself in old Bombay. Now eliminate the incessant heat, the millions of flies and the whining beggars. What's left? The pervasive aroma of Indian spices wafting through the air. The sensual smell of saffron. The tantalizing tease of turmeric.
I love Indian food, and because of that love, I have developed a painfully acute awareness of the enormous difference between good and bad Indian food. The bad can insinuate itself into your digestive system for days, causing all manner of socially unacceptable symptoms, but the good kind can transport you to realms of epicurean delight.
Which brings us to Bukhara—Indian for "strip mall"—which is situated in, of all things, a Huntington Beach strip mall. It's an intimate and superb representation of its genre, featuring healthy food, an extensive menu and, most important, many vegetarian choices.
If you are an Indian virgin, I suggest you partake of the combination dinner for two—unless you're eating alone, of course, in which case I recommend the Pathetic Losers chat room on AOL. The combination dinner includes an appetizer, soup, three entrées, naan (bread), raita (yogurt) and rice. For vegetarians, the entrées are bharta, matter paneer and dal. These are, respectively, an eggplant dish, roasted and then cooked with tomatoes and onions; homemade cheese and green peas cooked in a blend of spices; and creamed, deliciously spiced lentils. The assault on one's taste buds is breathtaking from start to finish.
If you'd rather mix and match, the appetizer of choice should be the samosa. This is a mixture of potatoes and peas, spiced and baked inside a crisp pastry shell. It is served with a choice of sauces, some sweet and some spicy. Other appetizers include vegetable pakoras (deep-fried battered veggies), aloo chat (a spicy blend of sautéed potatoes and peas), and a couple of dishes involving animal flesh. (Putting aside personal bias for a moment, there are many meat dishes—shrimp, lamb, chicken and fish—cooked in curries, kebabs, etc.) The soups offered are mulligatawny and lentil. The former is one of the items that truly define Indian cuisine, and at this establishment, it is superb—spiced to near perfection and guaranteed to kick-start the sweat glands.
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This predilection toward spices has several advantages. The first is the array of flavors encountered during any gastronomic adventure. The second and perhaps more important factor is the need for beer as a counterbalance. It's not the alcoholic buzz that's important, you understand—it's the need to cool off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Indian beers come in very large bottles. Try Taj Mahal or Kingfisher for the perfect complement to the food.
Bread is an important aspect of Indian food. Bukhara bakes all of theirs in a clay oven. They have basic naan, garlic naan, keema naan (filled with mildly spiced ground meat), kabli naan (sprinkled with pistachios, cashews and cherries) and several others. The bread is important, as it should be used liberally for scraping up the food. This is not considered gauche among Indians, but rather—like a belch in some Middle Eastern cultures—a sign of true appreciation.
All of the food comes in degrees of spiciness. If you are new to this cuisine, start with the medium and work your way up to hot. And hot in this case means hot. Actually, it's usually synonymous with an unexpected lawsuit from your internal organs.
BUKHARA, LOCATED AT 7594 EDINGER AVE., HUNTINGTON BEACH, IS OPEN mon.-thurs., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10:30 p.m. (714) 842-3171. DINNER FOR TWO, $40, INCLUDING BEER. beer & WINE. all major CREDIT CARDS accepted.