When it comes to sitting and getting proper table service for a full meal of Northern Indian curries or meaty Pakistani specialties, there’s no better place in downtown Long Beach than Kabob Curry. But when you don’t have time to dawdle in Kabob Curry’s soothing wall-to-wall Himalayan sea salt dining room or you’d just rather have a quick $7 chicken karahi bowl (or a paratha-wrapped lamb burrito) without the hassle of your own server, Fresh Kabobs saves the day.
Though the two Indian restaurants are mere blocks from each other in the heart of downtown’s Office Worker Potential Lunch Zone, it’s hard to call them competitors. Kabob Curry’s $8 lunch combos and speedy service never wiped it out of the lunch game entirely (hell, I ate at least one lunch there a week when I was working on Pine Avenue), but with a weekend buffet and a playlist of catchy Hindi-pop songs, it’s always best enjoyed when you relax and linger with good company. Fresh Kabobs, on the other hand, is built for speed and efficiency for solo fliers and small groups. And it does it all without sacrificing integrity or class.
A counter-service eatery located in the doomed City Place Shopping Center (between an authentic New York-style pizzeria and a mediocre Japanese takeout spot), Fresh Kabobs specializes in platters of grilled meat and curry bowls, all of which can be made to order in a matter of minutes. Somehow, it manages to do these rapid-fire preparations – even during the brutal lunch rush –without having any pre-heated slop hanging around in a steam pan. Everything I’ve had over the years (even when the business was across the street and many of its dishes were different) tastes just as good in a to-go container as it does if you get it on a ceramic plate and eat there.
These days, the menu includes the standard vegetarian curry bowls of channa and dal and saag paneer – overflowing portions of each smothering a two-meal pile of aromatic 10-spice Indian rice. Then there are the protein bowls with options between four different kinds of chicken masala, the handheld Fresh Kabobs wraps of meat rolled up in either crispy paratha flatbread or doughy naan, plus even more unexpected plates, like whole fried pompfret (it’s a South Asian pescado frito!) and lamb shank biryani.
Daily specials are always imaginative – dabbling in everything from snacks like masala fries to potentially new permanent menu items like spicy egg curry. But the one dish that’s become almost a ritual for downtown diners is the sampler-style 3-Way chicken kabob platter. In a twist that brings to mind the “wat lady” meme photo every time the cashier says it, Kabob Curry’s most popular dish, is not, in fact, kabobs at all. Instead of little chunks of chicken with holes in the middle from an invisible skewer, the same amount of meat now comes pounded into three hearty breast cutlets, each with a different marinade (traditional, herb and cream) placed atop that cardamom-and-cinnamon rice.
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Whatever you get (and whatever amount of kabobs it actually contains), make sure to douse it liberally in one or more of the house sauces, found in squeeze bottles in the fridge next to the soda fountain. With a cult following all their own, the spicy mango, cooling mint and garlic condiments distill the most crucial flavors from Indian cuisine into easy-to-love sauce form.
Beyond its fast casual appeal, its this kind of clever creativity that’s another point of differentiation between Fresh Kabobs and its similarly named Kabob Curry neighbor. And yet, if downtown’s two Indian restaurants were pitted against each other in a dual for my love, both could share the crown: a quickie 3-way at Fresh Kabobs for the perfect solo power lunch and a chilled-out family-style spread of curries and vegetables (with a side of Hindi-pop) at Kabob Curry for dinner.
Fresh Kabobs, 145 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 951-1227; fresh-kabobs.com