When my co-workers returned from their lunch break, I knew where they'd been just by the smell. Whatever cologne or perfume they wore that morning was now replaced by eau de garam masala. "You guys went to an Indian buffet again, didn't you?" I asked.
This time they went to the new place in town. And as they regaled me with tales of the feast at India Gate that rendered them immobile for the rest of the afternoon, I realized the verdict was unanimous: Everyone liked it. The guy from Bangalore gave it two thumbs up. The girl from Gujarat said it was good. Even the manager from Sri Lanka approved. They all told me I had to go with them next time—and soon because in spite of their varied backgrounds and taste preferences, they all agreed on the one rule that applies to all buffets, be it Indian, Chinese or Hometown: It's best when it's new.
Now is the time to go to India Gate, they said, before the drudgery of producing the same food en masse, day after day, wears on the cooks and affects quality. During this honeymoon period, they told me, the restaurant is out to impress—and not just with the food, but also the price. At $9.99 for the weekday lunch buffet, India Gate was currently charging less than any of its competitors in Tustin, a town not lacking in Indian buffets. And because the place is located blocks away from the main thoroughfares in a particularly sedate section of the city, the weekend rates are even cheaper. It's charging a mere $8.99 for the same all-you-can-eat array of curries, an avalanche of biryani, hulking samosas and an ocean of spicy sambar to sip with the fluffy, white powder puffs of their idlis.
On my first trip to India Gate, I went with my entire department. The buffet line featured heated chafing trays set up against one wall of a square room with fancy drapes and brand-new televisions conveniently tuned to the Food Network. I was about halfway through the selection when I realized my plate was full. Most of the space was taken up by the items I took out from a single trough piled high with a golden-brown heap of fried stuff. There was the jagged vegetable fritters called pakoras, the ultra-dense doughnut-shaped hoops of savory fried dough called vada and, of course, enormous samosas—deep-fried pastry tetrahedrons bloated with so much mashed boiled potatoes, onions and green peas they were practically a meal themselves. But there were also egg rolls to be had: tightly wound, crispy stogies filled with cabbage not unlike the kind you get at Panda Express. And, of course, I needed room for all the chutneys with which I'd slather everything, including a tangy tamarind, a creamy coconut, a sharp mint and a hellishly hot chile version I liked best of all.
As we ate, my Indian co-workers observed the cooking doesn't seem to favor any particular region. There's a northern-style goat curry with a lovely stink of game and a Hyderabadi dum biryani with shotgun blasts of whole spice pods not intended for consumption. There were white-meat-chicken cubes simmered in the creamy-tangy gravy of the tikka masala, a dish more British than Indian. But India Gate also does Indo-Chinese, including perhaps the best bastardization of bastardized dishes with its chile chicken (think General Tso's but spicier) and one of the crispiest renditions of gobi Manchurian—batter-fried cauliflower glazed in a spicy sauce—I've ever had.
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When I went for seconds, I noticed India Gate's tandoori chicken was unlike any such bird I've ever encountered. Instead of the usual orange hue, it was a gorgeous, rusty brown, the caked-on spices flaking off the meat as I ate it with my hands and plenty of rice.
To compete with Tustin's Dosa Place, India Gate also does dosas, those gigantic crispy crepes, and since it's not part of the buffet, you have to order it off the menu if you want it, which no one does during lunch. Along with the dosas, most of what India Gate's chefs are capable of cooking are relegated to dinnertime. The buffet represents only a fraction of the à la carte menu, which includes seafood specialties, uthappams and channa bhatura, for which they'll deep-fry the same dough used for the naan until it turns golden and puffy, serving it with a brick-red garbanzo bean stew. But dinnertime is a lonely time for India Gate. On the two evenings I went, I was the only customer. So perhaps an amendment to the earlier buffet rule is in order: When the all-you-can-eat-lunch price is so low, no one comes for dinner.
India Gate, 2512 Walnut Ave., Tustin, (714) 730-8996; indiagatetustin.com. Open daily for buffet lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Lunch buffet Mon.-Fri., $9.99; Sat.-Sun., $8.99. Beer and wine.