A TALE OF TWO NIK(K)I'S
Back when OC Weekly was in Costa Mesa, one of our favorite lunchtime spots was Nikki's Tandoori Express, a great Indian joint just up the street from South Coast Plaza where the saffron rice was fluffy and the naan ever-crunchy. Our visits stopped in 2004, when we relocated to Santa Ana and found other Indian restaurants to visit (namely, Tustin's fabulous Dosa Place). One of those restaurants wasn't NIKI'S INDIAN FOOD: Out of loyalty to the old Nikki's, we refused to visit what we thought was an obvious rip-off. Our embargo continued even after Nikki's Tandoori Express closed and became a Chipotle, a self-imposed ban borne out of nostalgia and loyalty for the original.
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Nostalgia and loyalty ain't always great virtues. Recently, I visited Niki's Indian Food and cursed myself for having missed out on years of its lunches. Niki's is much better than Nikki's ever was—it's one of the best Northern Indian-style takeout joints in the county and as great a bargain as you'll find in these happy times. The menu is limited: combo plates consisting of chicken (prepared tikka, shahi, or curry style), rice, naan and whatever two vegetables are available that day. Snacks (greaseless samosas, garlic naan so potent you can see the garlic shavings smeared across the naan's blackened ridges) abound, but your focus should stay on patronizing Niki's long enough to try every veggie/meat combination possible.
I've been eating chicken tikka for so many years that tandoori-cooked hen is as comfortingly bland to me as quesadillas, but Niki's version recently inspired me do something I've done maybe four times in my years as a food critic: return to the restaurant for dinner and order the same entrée again. The chefs chop the chicken into manageable chunks, then coat them with spices until the outer edges feel as dense as sand. Niki's chicken tikka isn't spicy in the searing sense; it's more like a light, dry, gentle burn, one that provokes your salivary glands more than it does your sweat glands. Dip the chicken tikka in the cooling raita, scoop some rice into the mix, and repeat.
As great as the chicken tikka is, Niki's vegetables can sometimes be just as hearty and even tastier. The offerings seem simple enough—carrots and peas, potato curry, cauliflower mixed with garbanzos. But Niki's slathers many of them with sauces so rich they'll distract you from the caterwauling Bollywood starlets yipping from the flat-screen TV above you. When I ordered the mushrooms one evening, I expected a clump of fungi. Instead, out came a bowl of meaty mushrooms in a thick, nearly creamy curry sauce, the best I've had in years. Rest in peace, Nikki's Tandoori Express—but Niki's is better than you ever were.
Niki's Indian Food, 2031 E. First St., Ste. A-2, Santa Ana, (714) 542-2969.