The brand new 19th Avenue / Dunlap light rail station, the line’s western terminus until track is extended to MetroCenter in the next decade, is easy to identify by its vibrant public art. In a community plaza built right at the corner, distinctive metal structures descend from an overhead canopy and form varied shadows on the surface below. The metal is painted a color that is not quite yellow, not quite orange, but a sort of golden hue in between. The color might be described in terms of turmeric, the popular spice revered not only for its taste but also its healthful properties.
According to the artists, the metal structures represent a theme of the sun, not food. Still, it’s an interesting coincidence that plenty of dishes flavored and colored by turmeric can be found just a block to the west at Nawaz Indian Cuisine. Walk west from the turmeric-colored metal, past the bike racks and parking lot, and look for Nawaz at the far end of a strip mall, beyond a thrift shop and a dialysis center. Nawaz is a modest market and restaurant where customers order at the counter and dine at a few small tables placed amid shelves full of lentils and spices for sale.
Outside Nawaz’ shoebox space, there are several signs touting fried chicken. This may be an attempt to appeal to customers unfamiliar with south Asian foods, but it’s clearly not the emphasis here. Instead, Nawaz’ small, open kitchen offers classic Indian dishes from a variety of the subcontinent’s regional cuisines. The small laminated menu is available at both the tables and the counter. Either way, walk up to the front to place an order. The staff vary in their English proficiency but will generally fetch a bilingual employee to handle order taking.
The appetizer menu is a familiar assortment of fried starters. Pakora are fritters of onions and vegetables, while the samosas are a pair of deep-fried pockets full of potato and minced vegetables with a dark chutney on the side as a condiment. South Indian dishes such as masala dosa, a crepe folded over a potato-based filling, are also suitable for eating by hand. Idli, steamed rice cakes with a slightly sour taste, and methu vada, a service of two savory doughnuts made from ground lentils, are two other offerings from the southern end of the country.
Because Nawaz’s space is so limited, it does not have a tandoor, or clay oven, and instead emphasizes those dishes given to stovetop preparation. That means that the naan, a quintessential Indian bread, is produced off site and packaged, rather than fresh baked on the premises. It’s still a good way to mop up extra curry sauce, though, and the bread comes in garlic, onion, and cheese varieties in addition to a plain, unadorned version. While naan is an airy bread, roti is also available as a flat, round, unleavened alternative.
Likewise, tandoori chicken has an effective, flavorful marinade that imparts a deep red color but not the audible sizzle usually associated with this dish. It’s an all dark meat serving with two drumsticks and one thigh. The white meat version is chicken tikka kababs, in which the breast meat is off the bone, cut into manageable pieces, and presented with onion, lime, and two pieces of bread for constructing wraps. Most all the other dishes, however, benefit from cooking over a gas flame, resulting in a variety of intense, fragrant curries and masalas.
The curries are mostly chicken and some lamb. The chicken curry is the most basic variety with a medium-spicy sauce. Chicken tikka masala has a more tangy, tomato-based sauce. For a higher level of spice, andhra chicken curry is available, and chicken vindaloo matches the chili heat with a bit of vinegar for a sharper flavor. At the opposite end of the heat spectrum, chicken koorma has a creamy, soothing sauce. Beyond the choices of poultry or lamb, goat masala is served, and mutton congura, flavored with sorrel leaves, is another dish from the andhra region.
Vegetarian curry dishes include channa masala, a chickpea steaw with a spicy sauce full of turmeric and tomato; daal, a puree of lentils with black mustard seeds and chilies floating within; and aloo gobi, a blend of cauliflower and potatoes in a sauce that is slightly creamy with a moderate level of spice. All the curries come with a side of rice. Be warned, however, that it’s plain long grain rice and not aromatic basmati grains. It does just fine for soaking up the rich gravies of the main dishes but has little discernible flavor on its own.
For a more satisfying rice experience, order one of the biryanis, the pilafs that Nawaz prepares particularly well. Chicken dum biryani benefits from slow cooking that infuses the rice and meat with ample flavor. The result is moist, fragrant, and well-seasoned. The chicken special biryani is the same pilaf with boneless white meat. Fish, goat, and vegetarian biryanis are also available, and all of the pilafs are attractively presented on a metal platter with side servings of a vegetable curry and raita, a yogurt condiment.
Yogurt is also a key component of the small beverage menu.The lassis come in plain, mango, sweet, and salty varieties, act as good fire extinguishers for the fiery curries. The refrigerator case is full of juices, bottled Mexican Coke, and Thumps Up, an Indian soft drink. Desserts include Indian restaurant classic such as rice pudding and gulab jamun — sweet, syrupy balls with a cake doughnut texture. In contrast to the big statement made by the public art, Nawaz is small and unassuming, but the color of turmeric links food and sculpture at 19th Avenue and Dunlap.
1957 W. Dunlap Ave., Phoenix AZ 85021
19th Avenue / Dunlap Station