Walking into India Palace, I'm surprised to see Raj Kumar, whom I've known for years but never officially met. I used to catch him smoothly working the tables at Taste of India on North Academy Boulevard; the 25-year-old always stood out to me for being everywhere, anticipating everything.
Now, having bought India Palace in February, Kumar's on to bigger things. He's hired his father, mother and brother — all of whom cooked at Taste of India — and is running the new spot as a family endeavor.
"Like, I own it, though any dishes that we make, we make as a family," he says, chatting with me at the front counter after I've sampled the lunch buffet and introduced myself.
The atmosphere hasn't changed much, with pastel, '80s-patterned chairs against tables sporting maroon tablecloths and glass tops; dark yellow and red paint on the wall; and the shades always drawn. The menu, however, has been tilted toward the creamy and spicy, to better represent Kumar's native north-Indian state of Punjab.
Most impressive is the off-menu (Kumar frequently recommends dishes) chicken makhani ($12.95), an orange, sweet-ish, heavy-cream dish reminiscent of butter chicken, but thick and super-rich. Though it counts some usual suspects (garlic, ginger, etc.) among its flavors, the dish is unusually intoxicating.
Equally delicious, but more straightforward, are the mixed biryani ($14.95) and off-menu samosa chaat ($5.95). The former combines beef, lamb, chicken, shrimp, green peppers, almond slivers and rice into a spicy something that resembles a good stir-fry; the latter takes potato-stuffed wheat samosas and covers them in a tangy red sauce of raw onion, chickpea, yogurt and turmeric.
And though dinner can offer more interesting options and shouldn't be missed, the lunch buffet ($7.95) presents a great chance to sample widely. Some of India Palace's selections are a little dry by the time we get to them, and flavors could use some tightening, but overall they're strong.
Let's start with the chicken. A tad milder than its cousin at Taste of India, the creamy butter chicken is still a good go-to for folks unsure of the cuisine. Kicking it up a notch, the chicken vindaloo runs thin and spicy, a red, tomato-forward sauce leading the way. Lastly, the on-bone tandoori chicken unveils a juicy inside past the charred, lemony outside.
Sides run the gamut, from a deliciously creamy, dark green saag paneer to a stale-from-heat vegetable pakora — potatoes, onions, spinach and cauliflower in a tasty, sweet fried dough — to a great dal turka: a thin, pebbly lentil dish that somehow tastes like the bean filling in a Taco Bell bean burrito (one of my most shame-inducing comfort foods). The chana masala comes off too much like baked beans, while the dessert-ish kheer runs harder to the melted-vanilla-ice-cream side than to the delicate-rice-pudding-flavored-with-almonds-and-saffron side.
But overall, the makes outnumber the misses, while the great service and chance to try unusual dinner dishes — Kumar swears that some aren't made anywhere else locally — offer a draw all their own.
"We're changing things, a little at a time, step by step; find the best [stuff] we can," the owner says, adding: "There are already Indian restaurants in town, but you hear people say, 'Hey, the service sucks, the water's not getting [refilled], nothing.'
"That's not us."