Have you heard of Sanjeev Kapoor? In India, he’s Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck and Oprah Winfrey rolled into one. He has a cooking show that’s the longest running program of its kind in Asia, a line of appliances, a chain of restaurants, lucrative brand endorsements, publications, even a food channel of his own.
So the first thing you’ll see on the marquee for his first U.S. location of the Yellow Chilli is his face, a signal to the Southern California Indian diaspora that he has landed in their back yard. It also distinguishes the place from Torch and Amaya, the two previous Indian restaurants that occupied the Buena Park space before this. (You may better recognize the building as the original home of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, OC’s pre-eminent showcase of shrunken heads and genetic mutations until The Real Housewives premiered.)
The building—which kind of resembles a Hindu temple, except for the Buddha statue at the top of the structure—has the same layout as its former Indian-restaurant incarnations. There was the clubby-looking dining room, a bar featuring tubes of whirling fire tornados and a walled-off banquet hall. It looked as grand as before—the Taj Mahal of OC Indian restaurants. But just as the last time I visited, there wasn’t a single customer when I arrived.
Since it was deserted, it wasn’t long before the server came bounding to my table. He was a ball of energy named Rahul. Knowing that a menu that spanned multiple pages would soon overwhelm me, he said he was there to offer recommendations. And he was right: I needed the help. The glossy tome contained dishes I’ve never heard of or had before, even in Artesia’s Indian enclave.
Even if you think you know Indian cuisine because you’ve eaten at all the lunch buffets around town, that’s kindergarten compared to the kind of Ph.D.-level knowledge needed to navigate this menu. Also, since the à la carte entrée prices hover around the $20 mark, I realized this was Indian cuisine for the fluent and affluent.
When I encountered an appetizer described as “topped with loads of fabulous stuff,” I knew I needed Rahul to guide me through the jungle. For a starter, he nudged me toward the pakoda basket: fritters made with bits of potato, cauliflower, onion, spinach, green chile and cottage cheese. They were good, but different than pakodas I’ve had in the past—these were breadier, almost like tiny beignets. But since it came out scarcely two minutes after he took my order, I began to suspect Rahul recommended it because he knew a fresh batch had just been made for the private party in the banquet hall.
My suspicions were somewhat confirmed when he offered complimentary samples of spicy, battered chunks of white fish called “Amritsari Macchi,” which were almost exactly like the ones I’ve eaten at Lenten fish fries, except with shotgun blasts of garam masala instead of plain salt.
Other dishes didn’t take long to arrive. Since there was a full-page picture declaring it one of the restaurant’s best-selling dishes, I ordered the lalla mussa dal, a black lentil-based stew slow-cooked on a low fire for 36 hours until the legumes surrendered all their silkiness. The resulting consistency was somewhere between chowder and full-fat refried beans. What I liked most, though, was how its slow and steady burn simmered in my mouth the entire night. Think of classic New Orleans red beans and rice, then set it ablaze.
For a meat entrée, I settled on the chicken tikka masala like a Know-Nothing American. But to eat with it, Rahul recommended the butter naan. “Doesn’t it come with rice?” I asked him.
“No, it doesn’t, but the rice is on me if you order the naan. You must try the naan!” he implored.
I did, remembering that Northern Indians eat more bread than rice. And again, he was right. Although the naan was thick in parts and thin in others, it was just the thing to sop up the dish, which turned out to be one of the boldest and spiciest tikka masalas I’ve had in OC.
Sanjeev Kapoor the Celebrity Chef may indeed be the face on the sign outside, but for me, it was Rahul the Server who was the true ambassador of his brand that night. As he said his bonus depended on it, Rahul begged me to write a Yelp review. I told him I’d do better than that. So, Mr. Kapoor, if you’re reading this, give the dude a raise!
The Yellow Chilli, 7850 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 523-8880; theyellowchillibp.com. Open for lunch, daily, noon-3 p.m.; for dinner, Mon.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 5-10:30 p.m. Entrées, $12-$22. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.