Photo by Matt Otto "So this is what democracy tastes like," I thought as India House's buffet steamed before me, a vast table of eight entrées, four desserts and enough chutney varieties to make a desi jangle with joy. This political reflection flashed through my hungered mind courtesy of a quick glance at the influential Indo-American newspaper India West a couple of minutes earlier. On its front page was news that Sonia Gandhi declined to become India's prime minister after the country's voters rejected the Hindu nationalism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on May 13 for the Gandhi-led secular Indian National Congress Party.
The Italian-born Gandhi refused the prime minister post of the world's largest democracy in order to avert religious riots—and the fact that both her husband, Rajiv, and mother-in-law, Indira, met deadly lead when each served as PM probably played a role, too. In her stead, Sonia nominated Manmohan Singh, a Sikh who now functions as India's first non-Hindu leader. Imagine that: the heir to a political dynasty defeating a country's ruling fundamentalists and then abdicating in favor of a minority candidate. Hey, if it could happen in a supposedly Third World nation, it could happen in this country come November, right? Right?
Okay, maybe not. But Americans famished for a savor of liberty should trek over to India House, a tiny-but-posh Buena Park restaurant where the promise of freedom comes with a complimentary basket of naan. This is the true Independence Hall of northwest Orange County, not that tired Knott's Berry Farm-owned replica down Beach Boulevard.
You might think India House is just another bland Buena Park bistro based on its unfortunate location between two grimy motels in the nexus of the town's yokel-heavy tourist district. The belly-sporting, shorts-wearing gastropods who waddle past India House throughout the day avoid the place like a treadmill—in this case, though, customer avoidance is a positive since it means your order arrives brat- and diaper-free. The majority of patrons are Indian immigrants who delight in picking from the 82 dishes available. Most ultimately settle on that grand buffet, an Electoral College of flavors, scents and—more important for any democracy, whether political or dinner—diverse options.
India House's buffet offers the hallmarks of any outstanding Indian feast—smoky tandoori chicken, assorted curries and masalas, and billowy basmati rice mounds—but the chefs also sneak in some surprises in a vegetarian key. Some days, it's aloo gobi, a caution-tape-yellow alliance of cauliflower and potatoes that's a bit dry but caked with debilitating spices. Even stranger is an extremely salted carrot-and-pickle concoction: nameless, yummy but so potent in its punch you can lob it at someone and earn a misdemeanor. This being a buffet, your selections will eventually blend into one another once they meet on the free range of your plate. Use the Great Unifier that is the free buttery, garlicky, crispy naan to quash any culinary dissension.
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India House also offers combination meals as a dinner option, but twilight is the hour when a smorgasbord's coalition-building nature deserves ignorance in favor of a unilateral meal. While the curries, vindaloos and masalas on the menu are the taste-bud equivalents of nirvana, concentrate on the chef's specials, all examples of subcontinental cooking techniques applied to non-Indian meats. The tandoori quail is a tiny bird of wonder, the quail's gamy essence assuming the gritty earthiness of the tandoor without losing its distinct, sharp flavor. More remarkable still is the tandoori lobster tail delivered without the shell, marinated with a peppery raita—outstanding.
Not all impresses at India House, however. The mango lassi fails to maintain any long-lasting tang, devolving from a rich, sultry liquid to bland goo within seconds of touching your tongue. Ask for a glass of water, and soon poured is the worst water I've ever sipped—and I'm counting the time I guzzled from a dirt-caked hose at my cousin's house in Placentia. And could eaters see something other than testimonials from Bollywood stars about their latest films on the giant flat-screen TV—such as, you know, the actual films themselves?
But then appear gasp-inducing desserts—cold kulfi ice cream and the warm carrot pudding known as gajar halwa, garnished with almonds and pistachios. Like any true democracy, India House suffers from problems, but they're minimal, insignificant, ephemeral when measured against its glorious whole. May the tenure of Manmohan Singh bring prosperity and peace to the land of our outsourcing lords—and may India House continue to function as a delicious meal metaphor for the freedom we so sorely crave.
India House, 7775 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 670-2114. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $18-$42, food only. All major credit cards accepted.