The minute I stepped into Mint Indian Restaurant in Laguna Hills, I knew I was in for a treat. The place smelled subtly of roasted meat and spices. After I sat down at a table nearest the kitchen's swinging door, I heard the sound of onions sizzling in hot oil and the clangs of a spoon stirring a pot. Occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of the cooks: older women hunched over low-slung stoves.
I alternated between trying to peek into that kitchen and the Bollywood scenes looped on two TVs. The YouTube clips seemed to always involve dance numbers, rhythmic music, a girl playing coy, and a boy who worked hard to earn her affections. It was something to pass the time as the food was prepared, but I wished the screens showed a closed-circuit feed of the alchemy under way behind the swinging door.
With no other decór except for a few ornate rugs hung at slight angles on the walls, Mint resembled many other restaurants in Artesia's Little India—but the family that owns and runs it isn't Indian. The food does not reveal this; I only found out when one of the other customers asked a server where they're from.
"Afghanistan," the server said, smiling.
"So am I!" the customer replied.
Yet with the exception of nihari, the long-simmered lamb stew that's Pakistan's national dish, the menu is a run-through of all the Indian standards of tikka, vindaloo and korma. At one point during its first few months of operation, Mint even offered an all-you-can-eat buffet much like other Indian restaurants in the area. It has since stopped and focused on cooking its food to order.
It's this insistence on preparing everything from scratch that makes Mint one of the best Indian restaurants in our county. The shrimp biryani fumed like Krakatoa. I had to blow on the first couple of forkfuls so that I didn't scorch my mouth. Shot-gunned full of spices and colors, it breeds addiction. Every grain was fluffy and each helping built up to a cumulative burn that I quenched with cooling gulps of raita.
One order of biryani is enough for three people. Mint's portions are generally huge, but the biryani is especially insurmountable if you didn't bring at least one friend to help you scale it. After multiple visits, I've settled on a new rule of thumb: have at least one more mouth than the number of dishes ordered. And bringing more people to Mint is a good idea, as you want to try something from every section of the menu. Start with the vegetable pakoras, lacy golden-fried fritters of cauliflower, potato and onion. Unlike others I've had, Mint's version wasn't overfried; the edges were crisp, but the middles were as soft as a cake doughnut.
Of course, there's chicken tikka masala, which was flawless—white-meat pieces buried under a thick, orange-tinted sludge that's perfectly balanced between the creamy, the tangy and the spicy. No trip I've made is complete without ordering it. And it wasn't just me who did: Nearly every table I saw had it or the vegetarian version with paneer.
There were also dishes I'd never seen before, such as the fried okra with caramelized onions. There was so much going on in this stir-fry that I'd probably need a botany textbook to identify all its spices and herbs. If I were vegetarian, I'd be satisfied if it were the only thing I ate. The same goes with the korma of cauliflower, peas, carrots and potato that simmered in an ultra-comforting cream-based gravy.
Mint also offers specialty dishes, including chunks of lamb stewed with spices and skin-on tomatoes cooked down to nearly paste. It's served in a traditional pot called a karahi, for which the dish is named. And there were kulchas, fat pancakes stuffed with spiced potato or onion whose only fault was that they were too filling.
I loved everything I ate at Mint, but I was most impressed by the hospitality. I saw a server offer to carry a large to-go order to the customer's car. And every request I made, whether it was just for a refill of water or extra chutney, was answered with an enthusiastic "Of course!"
One night, I saw my server looking at me with genuine concern. She noticed I was sweating. "Are you sure the karahi's not too hot?" she asked
"No, it's perfect!" I assured her.
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I may never uncover the mysteries of its kitchen, but at least now I know one of its secrets: Treat all your customers as if you actually care about them. And, actually: care about them.
Mint Indian Restaurant, 25381 Alicia Pkwy., Ste. C, Laguna Hills, (949) 305-1556; www.mintindianfood.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$40, food only. No alcohol.