Photo by Joy BastA couple of years ago, when I worked down the street, I must have eaten lunch three days a week at Mother India restaurant—sometimes more—and I never came close to tiring of it. The food is scrumptious, and their buffet lunch (open seven days per week from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) is accessible to those of us whose incomes are in inverse proportion to our big appetites. For $5.95, you can mow till you're popping the staples in your surgically shrunk belly on nine of Mother India's most popular dishes, plus salad and condiments—about the cost of a sandwich, fries and drink at any loathsome fast-food joint. How the restaurant continues to employ its fabulous chef, Pargat Singh, remains one of the mysteries of the East.
Business has since called me elsewhere. But on a recent visit, the smiles on the faces of the waitstaff told me they remembered this crazy American who, once upon a time, attacked the buffet table like a hurricane of food-lust just about every day.
The room is small and the ambiance modest and dignified. Tables are set with crisp linen, Indian music plays softly, and interesting cultural paintings adorn the walls. The staff—turbans on the men and saris on the women—is devoted to good service and manners.
Tandoori chicken is marinated in yogurt and saffron and then cooked in traditional superheated clay ovens; the fat is zapped laser-like from the meat, but leaves it fall-off-the-bone tender and so full of flavor it can be eaten alone. Still, I recommend dipping it into the house chutney—a piquant green salsa of hot chiles, mint, cilantro and other herbs. It's also wonderful when wrapped in naan, a chewy, tortilla-like Indian bread prepared fresh for each table. Go back for seconds and serve yourself chicken madras—young-chicken pieces in a tan curry that's subtly peppery. Make sure to grab yourself a big helping of saag aloo, a blend of spinach and potatoes rendered into a creamy, vaguely sweet sauce. This mixes well with the pulau rice, an aromatic and fluffy basmati rice flavored with saffron that's never sticky or heavy. Other buffet sides include roasted eggplant cooked with tomato and onions, dal turka (lentils in garlic and ginger sauce), and mushrooms sautéed in onions and fresh herbs.
Dinner entrées include the stuff of dreams: Bombay lobster marinated in spiced lime and braised in herbs and ginger; a half-dozen lamb dishes in a variety of sauces and curries ranging from mild to fiery; and several shrimp dishes, tandoori quail, kebabs, lentil soups and fried samosas. The dessert menu features pastries, ice creams and puddings, and the lovely aroma of Indian coffee and tea always fills the air.
Mother India is located in a small strip mall off something like an alley and can be rather difficult to find if you don't know where you're going, so I recommend either calling in advance for detailed directions or looking for the other lunch-time hot spot nearby: Wahoo's. Parking spaces are also at a premium, so it's best to arrive before noon or after 1:30 p.m.—and hungry. Always hungry.
Mother India, located at 688 Baker St., Ste. 8, Costa Mesa, is open daily, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. (714) 668-9661. lunch for two, $13, food only. wine served. all major credit cards accepted.
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