For those who have never been in the Little India section of Artesia, it's important to understand that like many of the ethnic neighborhoods of Southern California, this is not exactly like a journey to the homeland.
This is not Mumbai (formerly Bombay) or Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). This is a Southland bedroom community with a large Indian population, which has resulted in an area with lots of Indian restaurants and snack shops in mini-malls.
Go there during a hot weekday afternoon and you may wonder: What's the point? But go there in the cool of a Saturday night, when the whole population seems to be strolling about — including many women in saris and men in Nehru suits — and the deep ethnicity of Little India should be apparent. This is where we go to eat some of the best curries and tandoori in town, perhaps even in America.
One of the busiest of the restaurants is the almost generically named The India Restaurant, which certainly does cut to the chase. In the standard style, there's a buffet for lunch every day (I wonder if a daily brunch is offered in India as well), while dinner is a sit-down affair.
In the not-so-standard style, there's a moderately sized wine list, with 16 reds, 10 whites and a few sparklers. I'm sure the wine goes very nicely with the food, but I didn't bother to find out. I always drink beer with my Indian meals. Beer just seems right. The same way beer is the beverage of choice at barbecue shops, if you're eating tandoori, it's beer that you need — and the beer selection is a good one. There are six Indian beers, including Himalayan Blue, Old Monk and Hayward, as well as eight non-Indian brews. This is practically a gastropub with Indian food.
But the selection of Indian food is what's really impressive. Then again, in Little India, it better be. This is a most demanding crowd that definitely knows what the real deal tastes like. I count a staggering 36 nonvegetarian curries on the menu and another 26 vegetarian curries, which has to be as much (if not more) than anywhere else in town. But I'm getting ahead of myself, for any proper meal in an Indian restaurant should begin with an excess of appetizers.
If you're feeling a bit lazy, simply order the appetizer assortment of seekh (chopped meat) kebabs, vegetable pakoras, chicken pakoras, vegetable samosas and onion bhaji. For good measure, toss in some chicken chat. No, it's not a conversation with a rooster. It's a sort of crunchy chicken salad made with tomatoes, peppers, onions, salt, lemon and masala spices — it's beyond hard to resist.
There are actually twice as many vegetarian appetizers on the menu as there are meat appetizers; as ever, this is one of the best and most flavorful vegetarian cuisines around. But if you want something different, try the wonderful tawa aloo — potatoes served sizzling in masala, with onions, peppers and tomatoes. It's a dish that puts french fries with ketchup to shame.
The aloo tikki — a creation of deep-fried mashed spuds with a multitude of spices — is pretty great, too. Though it is somewhat ironic, for the potato is a native of the Andes, not the Himalayas.
In terms of the tandoori dishes, pardon me for being a classicist, but there's nothing better than tandoori chicken. Tandoori shrimp and fish and so forth are fine (and I wouldn't reject them if they showed up on my plate), but chicken, with its bland affability, was made for tandoori. Like the potato, it's a function of what you do to it, and the tandoori oven does some very good things along with that marinade of yogurt, herbs and spices.
The many curries are all served with rice, crispy papadums and both a tamarind and a mint chutney. You can order them mild, medium or hot (though the hot is controlled rather than mean-spirited). This is food meant to be enjoyed, not suffered through.
And speaking of enjoyment, the breads are pure pleasure. Try the Disco Naan, flavored with ginger, garlic, onions, chili and cilantro. To finish things off, I've loved the Indian dessert called kheer forever. It's the best rice pudding imaginable.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.