For all the bro bars and parking dramas that keep the sane away from Belmont Shore's Second Street at night, there are an equal number of tempting lunch specials and winter beach vibes that make mid-day trips totally worth it.
One of the best deals on the two-mile-long strip lies inside Natraj, a semi-upscale Indian restaurant that, until 2:30 p.m,. ditches its traditional table service and instead displays a plentiful help-yourself spread of South Asian favorites along the back wall, allowing patrons to choose their own dining adventure.
For only $8.95, vegetarians and meat lovers can both get crazy and full at Natraj's all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, which also includes a salad bar, bottomless naan and desserts like carrot pudding and gulab jamun, those delightful little donut holes soaked in rosewater syrup.
Upon entering, it's safe to beeline for the plates and start loading them up, no shame. Once you're at the table, the owner--who, with a perpetual smile on his face, somehow recognizes everyone who walks in--will take your drink and naan order, but otherwise leaves you alone, judging not when you make multiple trips back for more pakoras, rice or yellow daal.
The lineup of available options varies from day to day, but it is guaranteed that there will always be four meat-free dishes and four chicken ones, perfect for the indecisive people who dream of being part of a major family-style Indian feast. While lunch at all the other Indian restaurants in Long Beach require you to pick one (two if you're lucky) of the cheaper dishes on the menu, here it's okay to take little nibbles of everything from the sweet saag to the tandoori chicken and every mixed vegetable offering in between.
The vegetable korma and chicken makhani are the heaviest, most filling items in the buffet, the first being a stew of peas, potatoes and carrots in a yellow cream sauce and the latter being a masala-style butter-and-tomato-sauce filled with chunks of white meat chicken. Otherwise, the channa masala, chicken curry, chicken jafrezi (stir fry) and daal are all good for massive plate portions that won't tap you out too quickly.
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Most buffets give off the appearance of old, crusty food the kitchen was just trying to get rid of, but Indian grub does surprisingly well under heat lamps for a few hours. The baby-food consistency of the vegetable dishes doesn't even flinch and even the red-rubbed tandoori chicken retains its moisture, with the carmamelized onions from the bottom of the foil still dripping with sweetness as you load them onto a plate.
For the price of a sandwich and soda elsewhere, Natraj's lunch buffet allows palates to tour the many flavors in Indian cooking with no limits to the amount of food you choose to stuff in your face. Sure, dinner may come in fancy silver dishes with an attentive full-time waiter, but arriving early on Second Street means more options, more food and less bros at one of the best buffets in town.
Natraj Cuisine of India, 5262 E. 2nd St., Long Beach, (562) 930-0930, natrajlongbeach.com