The big trend in Orange County Indian dining over the past couple of years has been the spread of its southern dishes—dosas and idli and thali plates. But sometimes, a man just wants a massive heap of chicken tikka, each red-orange chunk juicy and spicy, on top of a mound of basmati rice with a side of raita to cool everything off. The problem with that yen, however, is that though OC's Northern Indian restaurants are uniformly good, they are rarely great.
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But for the past year, Punjabi Tandoor in Anaheim has consistently wowed, an amazing accomplishment given its location next to an Arco station near the Penguin City barrio and that its primary audience is workers from nearby Anaheim City Hall looking for a quick, cheap meal. These drones don't care about quality (the proof is in the many subpar restaurants immediately around their offices they have supported for years), so Punjabi is largely wasted on them. And it seems like a straightforward, unimpressive menu to the forker community: masalas and vindaloos and curries.
Within these tried-and-true listings, however, lies a care for food as intricate yet overwhelmingly glorious as the beats brought down by the bhangra drummer who serves as Punjabi's mascot. An order of channa samosa brings out a trio of the fried potato chunks in a deliberate presentation, with the samosas placed equidistant from one another, promontories in a sea of furtively hot garbanzos. Fiery red and green chutneys decorate the dish, alongside cooling lines of raita; it looks like a Desi Christmas. You'll even forgive that it serves the chana samosa on a to-go Styrofoam tray—it's that spectacular. All the meats thrown into the tandoor emerge with the smoky, desiccated heat for which the contraption is renowned. Sauces linger, and anything fried shines with golden allure. Order one of the baker's dozen choices of flatbreads, from toasty naan to cheese-stuffed paratha that's like a subcontinental quesadilla to puffs of poori. Even the mango lassi, that wonderfully oversweet drink found at all Indian restaurants, features more depth here than at its competitors; it's tarter, fleshier, better.
Punjabi Tandoor, www.punjabitandoor.com.
More is promised in the coming months—a wider selection on an already-expansive menu, more ambiance (Punjabi Tandoor occupies a place that was once a Cuban coffee shop, so excuse the neo-Spanish colonial seats and tables), even wireless for those Anaheim drones. And most beautiful of all? Nearly all menu items cost less than $10—a bit of nom nom nirvana for our End Times.
This column appeared in print as "Nom Nom Nirvana."