Negotiating one's way to solid Northern Indian fare
I imagine many diners who like Indian cuisine and can tolerate some chili heat have had this frustrating discussion with their server: "Curry: spicy, please." "Would you like that mild, medium, or hot?" "Hot, please." "Ooh, hot here is very hot." "Hot, please." Then what arrives is rather mild (they're just protecting your wimpy American palate), and once again a language barrier stands between you and your desired order. I guess we all need to learn to talk in Scoville units. I experienced a novel variation on this at Halal Indian Cuisine, a pocket-size counter-service storefront that focuses on Punjabi dishes. "Plain lassi, please." "Ooh, you know that's very sour, right?" "Yes: plain, please." Fortunately, I was able to talk them out of the sugar they seemed anxious to add to the lassi ($2.50) on my behalf.
I needed that cooling, tart yogurt drink, because the dal tadka ($5.95) I ordered ("Hot, please") turned out to be very hot indeed, but not so hot as to overwhelm its singing flavors of garlic and cilantro. This soupy yellow-lentil stew made for fine dipping with the excellent plain nan or spoonfuls of basmati rice — entrées include a choice of either — though the rice, while fragrant, could have benefited from more seasoning. The kitchen fries things beautifully: bhindi bhaji ($5.95) punched up batter-fried okra with a classic masala of cumin, coriander, garlic, turmeric, tomatoes, and fresh cilantro. Among the many standard fried appetizers, I thought "Egg Pakoda" (usually spelled "pakora," $3.75) was a delicious novelty: hard-boiled eggs fried in a mildly spiced batter coating. Seekh kebab ($8.95), a long, turmeric-yellow cylindrical kebab of ground lamb (halal, of course) loaded with chopped scallions, was baked in the tandoor, sliced diagonally, and tasted like a tight-grained sausage without casing. Chicken biryiani ($6.95) was a mild, filling mash-up of chicken, nuts, cilantro, and basmati rice.
The room is a bright, spotless storefront done in fire-engine red and sunny yellow, with granite tabletops and all of 14 seats. The friendly staff reminds us that attractively priced specials like the "Sampler" ($7.50) — six two-ounce scoops of a variety of daily steam-table dishes, plus rice or bread — are only available at lunch. The chef, originally from Nepal, is currently reluctant to challenge his American customers with some of his native cooking. I hope he eventually gets the chance, given the fine, to-order execution he brings to overly familiar Northern fare in his very pleasant and bargain-priced neighborhood spot.
Halal Indian Cuisine, located at 736 Huntington Avenue in Mission Hill, is open Monday through Saturday, 11 am–11 pm, and Sunday, noon–11 pm. Call 617.232.5000.
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