Spice India: Buffet Your Day

It's great to report that the Indian buffet has gone beyond novelty and become such an OC mealtime tradition—as have breakfast burritos, a bowl of pho or a Balboa Bar come summertime—that you can ask your co-worker if he wants to get tandoori, and his response won't be some lame Apu joke but rather whether the restaurant also offers mango lassis. Such eating establishments are all over the county now, concentrated in the thickets of office parks in Irvine, Tustin and Lake Forest, sometimes attached to an Indian grocery store, other times a stand-alone—and sometimes both, as the restaurant part gets more popular and the owners decide to maximize their space by appealing to non-Indians.

Spice India in Lake Forest is a great case study of the latter trend. The space had hosted different Indian-themed food businesses for years before settling into a grocery store-cum-Bollywood DVD outlet. Eventually, it transitioned into also offering a buffet—a good one, but not worth the drive into deepest, darkest Lake Forest. Then this year, new owners came in, took out all the groceries and began concentrating on the food. They brightened the flavors of tried-and-true entrées for the regulars and introduced new items to attract more customers. Success! The buffet offerings are mostly northern Indian dishes that have become American favorites—vindaloos, biryanis, masalas, samosas. Appetizers include chicken chaat (essentially Hindustani chicken salad, but far better and spicier than what you'll find at a family reunion) and papri chaat, which I'd call subcontinental nachos if the comparison weren't so ludicrous—but what else would you call flour crisps topped with raita and chutney? It serves lamb as well as mutton, a meat most Americans have never bothered with; in the rara and sohitya preparations, Spice India brings out the assertive gaminess of the mutton, making a case for consuming sheep when they're adults instead of cute, little babies. And the house pickles are so puckering you just might swallow your lips after smelling them.

Dessert is a more pedestrian affair—while the gulab jamun, kheer and ice creams are perfect cappers to any meal, I wish the kitchen would be as adventurous with sweets as it is with the specialties. But I wouldn't be surprised if that happens. The new Spice India owners put in more tables in the remodel, and the change has been popular enough that I suspect they'll tidy up the place even further. Given how popular Indian food has become in Orange County, I say give them a year before the next leap forward.

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