When someone told me that Kamal Palace was a hidden Indian-food gem, I didn't know that the emphasis would be on the "hidden."
Tucked away in the labyrinthine backside of the Marina Pacifica shopping center--which boasts far more retailers than have Pacific Coast Highway-visible signage--Kamal Palace would be all but invisible from even the parking lot if it were not for a small wall sign nowhere near the actual restaurant that tells confused customers to go to the "lower level."
Once downstairs though, it's up to you to wander in the right direction, follow occasional arrows and land in the low-slung, harbor-hugging Indian oasis whose actual entrance looks more like it belongs in the midst of a bustling bazaar than an outdoor shopping mall.
But whatever Kamal Palace lacks in curb appeal, it makes up for with an interesting selection of curries, tandoori-cooked meats and Nepalese dishes unavailable anywhere else in Long Beach--some of which make up the restaurant's extensive seven-day-a-week lunch buffet.
From 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. daily, the three-cart buffet is the only food that comes out of the kitchen and for less than $10, you can have at as much of it as you want.
It's safe to walk in and go directly for the plates first, which is what you'll probably want to do since the whole place fills with the aroma of masala sauce and South Asian spices. Similar to Long Beach's other lunchtime Indian buffet at Natraj's on Second Street, one cart at Kamal Palace's lineup is dedicated to vegetarian dishes and another to meat and desserts with a simple salad lineup taking over the third.
After a few visits, I got used to the stalwart vegetarian standards like saag (creamed spinach) and channa (chickpeas in a spicy curry), but found that the other veggie dishes often get switched up with whatever the cook feels like making.
On one recent visit, Kamal Palace's butter masala sauce--a heartier, spice-flecked take on the style, which is always available as a soupy coating for cubes of chicken--came as a tomato-skin-loaded broth for bites of carrots, cauliflower and potato. Another dish featured squash mixed with bell peppers and homemade paneer cheese, which after being cut into thick strips and cooked, had a spongy consistency not unlike tofu.
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Red-skinned tandoori chicken, brown-curry chicken and ground chicken kabobs round out the meat offerings (though I wish for a few extra bucks, there could be some lamb out there), however, where Kamal Palace's lunch buffet really stands out is with its sides and sauces. Mango and mint chutney, tamarind sauce and an unnamed fattoush-style salad of chickpeas, tomatoes, cucumbers tossed in an aromatic paste are all offered alongside an otherwise boring salad array of iceberg lettuce and thousand island dressing.
For as difficult as it is to find, Kamal Palace's harbor views and secluded dining room make for an intimate eating spot that almost contradicts the bustling connotations of a lunch buffet.
But a steady lineup of classic and inventive Indian dishes (the carrot pudding--yes, veggies for dessert!--tastes like smushed carrot cake) has ensured that their loyal lunchtime clientele has no qualms about following the arrows down the stairs, through some hallways and into Long Beach's most hidden Indian eatery.
Kamal Palace, 6374 E Pacific Coast Hwy, Long Beach, (562) 493-0255