A couple of weeks ago, I met a nice South African lady; the conversation, naturally, turned to food. She was impressed I knew about African Hut, appreciated Edwin’s long-ago review of Boneheads, felt the quality of Mozambique had fallen inversely to its rise in popularity as a Laguna Beach watering hole, and essentially lives at Springbok in Long Beach. We touched on Wholesome Choice’s wide selection of South African produce—and then the conversation stopped.
“Where else can I find South African cuisine in Orange County?” I asked.
Without hesitation, she exclaimed, “Nina’s!”
Nina’s Indian British Grocery in Lake Forest? That small grocer with the so-so buffet? Indeed, it was, but it had actually expanded to a larger location due to its increasing popularity since the last time I visited—and unlike Mozambique, the quality of its offerings has improved. The menu is still buffet, still at the back of the store, but the people at Nina’s seem to have corrected the errors of the previous location. Chicken tikka masala is no longer a syrupy mush, but rather strong in flavor, robust and spicy. Garlic naan isn’t edible paper, but instead toasted, stretchy yet flavorful. Biryani, saag paneer, tandoori chicken—all the refugees of the Indian buffet exist here and are better than at other places, but mitigated for the Commonwealth palate. I’ll eat here if I’m in Lake Forest and have a hankering for Indian, but some advice for the owners: Work some South African specialties such as boerewors, biltong and meat pies into that buffet, and you will get not only Orange County’s sizable South African expat community further patronizing your place, but also foodies like moi.
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Beyond the buffet, however, lies what draws the nice South African woman back again and again: the groceries. Instant Indian dishes prepared by South African companies, a legacy of the Indian diaspora in Africa. Pakistani products abound as well, along with British-Indian products. And there’s another expat community with an Orange County presence and not enough culinary representation that patronizes the place: Sri Lankans. Most Indian grocers stock a couple of items from the island nation almost as an afterthought, but Nina’s stocks multiple curries, ones found nowhere else—crab curry, mutton curry, even a cashew curry that tastes like the spiciest candy bar since the days of the Aztecs. Nina’s is a worthy spot—but the potential of its buffet, if it used only the great products from its shelves, boggles the culinary mind.
Nina’s Indian British Grocery, 23532 El Toro Rd., Ste. 20, Lake Forest, (949) 583-2789; www.ninasgrocery.net.
This column appeared in print as "Commonwealth Cupboard."