Beware of stereotyping! The last time I visited the India Cafe, I did just that when a table of middle-aged gabachos excitedly called the owner over to chat. I figured them tourists or aunts from Iowa, but definitely not people who knew their vindaloos from an aloo gobi. I dug into my lunch special extra-hard to keep my mouth and eyes occupied lest I wince at the horror show that I assumed was to come.
The India Cafe is a delicious contradiction. The owners are Nepalese, as hinted at by the multiple photos of the Himalayas on the walls. But the only true regional specialties offered are momos, the gigantic dumplings you can order steamed or fried but will come out delicious either way. That said, the India Cafe doesn’t serve them with blindingly hot chutney or puckeringly sour yogurt the way they do in the Queens, New York, neighborhood of Jackson Heights, which has one of the largest Nepalese communities in the United States. Then again, the Indian dishes on the menu are spiced more as they are in Nepal—milder, a tad sweeter, and in love with the tandoor or grill. Take the chicken choila, which comes out on a sizzling platter that would make fajitas jealous.
Other Indians and Nepalese happily gobbled in the booths of the narrow restaurant as I waited for the owner to approach his white customers. I finished off the last flakes of my crispy poori bread, dragging it in the mint chutney. What happened next embarrassed me: The gabachos knew their stuff. Apparently, a few of them had been missionaries in Northern India in the 1970s and still visited. They and the Nepalese owner delighted in quizzing one another about cities and regions around the Himalayas, with each knowing what the other spoke of. So it was especially poignant and telling when a woman who looked as if she had just closed escrow on a spot in Laguna Woods said, “This fish curry is the best I’ve had in 35 years.”
The table continued to rave about the food to themselves for the next half an hour. I asked for the bill, took my leftovers home—and vowed to STFU for the rest of the day.
The India Cafe, 528 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 200-9365; www.theindiacafeca.com.