Long Beach Lunch: Taste of India

Taste of India seems to be a catch-all name for West Coast Indian restaurants, like what Ray's is to New York pizza. But unlike all the Ray's that finally came together to form one franchise chain, the Long Beach Taste of India–a tiny corner storefront across from the Willow Blue Line station–remains an independently owned Indian fast casual joint that operates kind of like a South Asian Panda Express.

All the pre-cooked food is laid out in front of you in a cafeteria-style setup and all you need to do is pick the number of items you want in the combo and the helpful Latina (!) that has worked there for years will fill up a Styrofoam to-go container with more food than you will ever be able to fit into your stomach at once. The combos have great prices ($7 for two items!) and come with your choice of entrees plus a salad, a drink, a piece of naan and loads of basmati rice.

What makes Taste of India even more awesome than the other low-cost fast casual places along Long Beach Boulevard is that the Indian-born owner not only cooks every morsel himself, but he also pokes his head out of the kitchen to say hi to each customer that comes in the door (and if you haven't been there for a while, he'll say, “Long time, no?” in a way that makes you feel a little guilty for not craving Indian food more often).

Every day his menu of available hot food changes, but the most popular (and cheapest, I assume) Indian dishes are always there. Chicken tikka masala, channa masala and saag aloo, for example, are stalwarts. Daal makhani, tandoori chicken and palak paneer make frequent appearances.

The naan is always stellar, too. As soon as an order is placed for a combo, the owner grabs a piece of dough, rolls it around in his hand and then slaps it onto the brick sides of his tandoori oven (I was invited into the kitchen once to watch this process). By the time the customer is getting rung up, the freshly-baked warm, soft bread is already in a piece of tin foil in their bag.

Last time I went, I ordered something called simply “carrots, peas & potatoes,” which was kind of like a veggie korma without the heavy cream sauce. And I always get the chicken tikka masala because the sweet-but-spiced sauce (which has more tomato than others I've had) tastes so good after getting absorbed by the saffron-infused rice. If I'm really hungry, I'll get a veggie samosa and some raita on the side–a deal for only an extra buck.

Because the food is made en masse, most of the dishes available for quick eating are, unfortunately, not very spicy. But if you like your daal (or whatever) with a kick, just let the owner know and he will be so excited that you actually rejected the mild version that he will gladly make a medium or spicy portion. Otherwise, the spiciest thing in the entire meal will be the salad dressing (it's a real lip burner), a fine fact for the droves that come to get loaded up with Taste of India's quick-and-dirty gabacho-friendly traditional Indian dishes, but something that fans of food with some heat will have to remedy themselves.

Taste of India, 2620 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 595-7525.

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