Dueling Dishes: Battle North Indian Versus South Indian Lunch Buffets!

Soup Plantation, Hometown Buffet and Vegas are what dominate the mainstream conversations about restaurant buffets. But in Orange County, of course, the best ones are Indian, especially around lunchtime: India Cook House, Clay Oven, Haveli and many more.

North Indian-style buffets–think chicken tandoori, naan and tikka masala–dominate OC, but the past couple of years have seen the emergence of South Indian-style ones as well. For this week's edition, from the North, We have Traditions in Tustin; for the South, just a few exits away from Culver, the buffet from Annapoorna in Irvine.  Both for less than $10, both fighting for your attention.  Duel!

Both spreads share a number of entrées (most likely to appease those who do know the difference), which make it even more difficult to
distinguish for the average diner. However, one recurring difference involves dairy. 

Generally speaking, Northern selections are more cream-based than their Southern counterparts–that's good to know for our lactose-intolerant guests. Think palek paneer, a spinach-and-mustard-leaf curry featuring Indian paneer cheese, which happened to be in both buffets. Cuisine from the Southern areas lean heavily toward vegetarian options–not just samosas, but pakora, dosas and an emphasis on vegetable curries. These are vast generalizations, of course, as big as their respective buffets–so let's get to the food.

Traditions is a free-standing structure in a multicultural food court masquerading as a strip mall. Walk up to the host, and they're happy to seat you wherever you want, if you're early enough. Rich red walls, bamboo-inspired silverware (although the purchaser who ignored ordering the right spoons loses my vote of confidence) and LOTS of elbow room between tables makes for a pretty setting.  

As with most buffets, the protein of choice is chicken. Chicken jalfarezi, a curry with fresh tomato and butter, was just as heavy in my belly as it looked. The tandoori was moist, and the tikka masala heaped over white rice was a treat. While I'm not particularly fond of goat (because it conjures up disturbing memories of my great-uncle's farm . . . but I digress), Traditions served it well. Dal makhani, creamy boiled lentils, was more appealing for the chilly weather than the soupy tomato.

Annapoorna still doesn't have as much fame as its fellow South Indian restaurant, Dosa Place. There's remodeling going on outside, making the wait for a table borderline unbearable. It's one smallish dining room–and did I mention the busy parking lot? Regardless, the place is packed, and patience is almost no longer a virtue when we are informed our table is being cleared. Servers suggest lining up for the buffet, promising our designated seats by the time we're done–and they delivered.

Simply put: rice, naan and dosas. DOSAS! Thin, crispy crepes made from rice batter and black lentils. Samosas were like mini chicken pot pies . . . minus the chicken. The deep-fried pakoras would make a perfect veggie meal, if not for being, you know, so deep-fried. I especially enjoyed the chicken biryani, with its layers of rice, meat and curry flavors. 

I could go on about the curries or veggie dishes, but it would start to sound redundant. And diners can enjoy both of them, and we Forkers wouldn't browbeat you if you prefer one over another. The verdict for me, however, is Annapoorna. We ultimately got better service, it serves a delish dosa upon request, and you can't beat the $6.99 deal on Mondays and Tuesdays. 

Traditions, 14131 Red Hill Ave., Tustin, (714) 508-5959; www.traditionsfood.com.
Annapoorna, 14450 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 651-1144; www.miannapoorna.com.

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