Looking at Indian restaurants in America, it used to be that the cuisine of south Asia was so exotic that any Indian restaurant would do. As a result, most followed the same format with a generic menu and closed the deal with a lunch buffet. Thankfully, some variety has emerged in recent years. There are now several southern Indian restaurants around town, as well as the occasional chaat shop for snacks. The Dhaba, a restaurant in Tempe approaching its fifth anniversary, bases its look and feel on an unlikely source: truck stops and roadside diners.
|delhi chandni chowk thali|
The Dhaba serves a type of hearty food from the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. There, dhabas are a type of roadside restaurant serving comfort food in informal surroundings. Tempe’s take on a dhaba lies along Apache Boulevard, a few blocks east of the McClintock / Apache light rail station. The restaurant is part of a shopping center known as India Plaza, where groceries, DVDs, and other south Asian goods are for sale. The one-story building looks quaint next to the newer multi-story apartment complexes nearby, and it’s easy to overlook.
Even within the plaza, the restaurant itself is hard to locate. The sign saying “Real Punjabi Food” looks promising but actually leads into the market. Another signs says “Dhaba Cafe,” but that’s for a casual snack shop that seems never to be open, due to staff shortages according to restaurant staff. Instead look between those for a patio obscured by shades. The patio is seldom used for dining, but it leads to the Dhaba’s hidden door. A bike rack is located just to the left near the inactive cafe, and two fanciful pedicabs are on display near the grocery entrance.
|bike rack and pedicabs|
Inside, the Dhaba’s look is spiffier than the original roadside concept, but still true to its roots. The wooden plank eating surfaces of traditional dhabas have been replaced with textured dark wood tables. Even the high chairs for young children match the look. Metal plates and drinking vessels augment the rustic feel. The small waiting area near the host station feels like a casual living room. Stylish light fixtures overhead create a gentle red glow suggestive of food cooked in a tandoor, a traditional clay oven that is popular in Punjabi cooking.
Maybe that look isn’t entirely coincidental. Tandoori foods are prominent on the Dhaba’s menu, with skewers of poultry, meat, vegetables, shrimp, and fish available. Even a vegetarian option, cubes of paneer cheese with vegetables, benefits from the distinctive touch of the clay oven. The plain-tasting cheese, often viewed as the Indian equivalent of tofu, benefits from the marinade of spices and yogurt. Red meat fans should be prepared to enjoy some lamb. In deference to both Hindu and Islamic teachings, the Dhaba offers neither beef nor pork.
Besides the tandoori items, there are numerous dals and curries, along with rice dishes and breads ideal for soaking up the flavorful sauces. There are even some wraps, basically sandwiches in which meats or vegetables are rolled into a generous piece of naan, the flatbread popular in northern India and Pakistan. This south Asian burrito approach works perfectly well in terms of pairing meats and vegetables inside the rolled bread, but the fries that accompany the wraps are unfortunately quite mealy. Ask for a side of rice instead.
If looking for a generous meal, try one of the thalis, meals of multiple components presented on a platter. The delhi chandni chowk thali comes with a vegetable basmati rice dish, medium-spicy chicken curry, a vegetable of the day such as channa masala (chick peas in a tomato sauce), naan, salad, dal, raita, dessert, and chai. It’s a whole lot of food, but according to the policy stated on the menu, the price is per person, so sharing one platter between two people isn’t really feasible. Instead, be prepared to take half the food home for later enjoyment.
|lamb curry lunch special|
The Dhaba is no longer as low-priced as it was five years ago, but the lunch specials are still a good a value considering the variety and quality of food offered. Three options are offered each weekday: one meatless dish, one chicken entree, and one item featuring lamb of seafood. A modest portion of the featured curry comes with dal, naan, rice, raita, and rice pudding for dessert. Features choices range from mild dishes like Monday’s malai kofta, vegetarian meatballs in a creamy sauce, to fiery, vinegary offerings such as fish vindaloo on Fridays.
|fish vindaloo lunch special|
Adventurous eaters should not limit themselves to the main dishes at the Dhaba. Some of the most interesting cooking is among the selection of chaat, or Indian snack foods. Some items, such as the samosas, are both familiar and delicious. Others will be new to many diners. The ambala tiki chaat features potato pancakes under an intense sauce of chick peas, tamarind chutney, mint, and yogurt. Bombay bhel puri can only be described as having a texture like Rice Krispies, although the trio of accompanying sauces adds needed flavor and moisture to the dish.
The Dhaba now has a liquor license with big bottles of Indian beer and some wine available. Other beverages include soft drinks like Thums Up, an Indian cola, and lassi, yogurt drinks in sweet and salty varieties. The lassi here is full of fresh mint and fennel seeds, a nice contrast with the packaged preparations sometimes found in Indian restaurants. The Dhaba isn’t like most other Indian restaurants around town, and that’s a welcome development. If South Asian food has become so mainstream as to be routine, be thankful there’s an alternative on Apache.
1872 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe AZ 85281
McClintock / Apache Station