Indian cuisine moves west3/23/2016
Most ethnic cuisines in Des Moines began in the inner city in neighborhoods attractive to immigrants. Italian restaurants spread from the south side, Vietnamese from the Drake and Riverbend areas, Jalisco/Michoacan from the east side, and Chinese from downtown. In most cases, it took several decades before any reached the suburbs. South Asian cuisine is the anomaly. Though India Star originated in Beaverdale and still operates on the Des Moines side of the Urbandale border, it was followed by a series of Indian and Pakistani cafés in the affluent western and northern suburbs — Namaste, Persis Biryani Grill, Pasadise Biryani Pointe, Taj Mahal, Kurry Xpress and, most recently, Indian Tadka.
Both Persis Biryani Grill and Paradise Biryani Pointe are national chains that intentionally locate in areas of concentrated Indian populations. In West Des Moines, they are a few blocks apart near Wells Fargo headquarters, likely Iowa’s largest employer of Indian talent. Indian Tadka is in Waukee, not close to South Asian workers or neighborhoods; it marches to the beat of a different drum.
Many South Asian restaurants operate weekday lunch buffets — Taj Mahal, Paradise Biryani Pointe, Namaste and India Star. Indian Tadkha runs one on weekends only. With the recent closings of both Old Country Buffet and Ryan’s Family Buffet, the “all you can eat” genre has almost been conquered by Chinese behemoths. These Indian lunch buffets are a superior alternative, particularly for vegetarians. Indian Tadka is probably the most vegetarian focused of all central Iowa Indian menus.
That seems authentic to me. I lived in India for a year and traveled to all its states. Tandoori (clay ovens fired with charcoal) restaurants were as rare in most cities as all prime steakhouses are here. Most Indian restaurants were vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian. A rapidly growing middle class has increased the subcontinent’s hunger for meat in recent years but nothing like what Indian cafés offer here. Tandoori chicken stars at most Des Moines area cafés. Curries star at Indian Tadka, with tandoori an afterthought. Boneless chicken used in kebabs and curries is described as tandoori, but there are no whole pieces of chicken cooked this way.
The mom and pop owners are originally from Gujarat, a state with a mostly lacto-vegetarian diet that is influenced by the large non-violent Vaishnavist and Jain populations. (Gandhi came from Gujarat.) An old British friend who lived most of his life in India said that “if there is vegetable you do not think you like, try it in a Gujarati curry.” The American equivalence of that statement would be “everything is better with lots of butter.”
Curries are rich at Indian Tadka. Butter, ghee, oils, saffron and cream and cheese are used liberally. Mahkani dhal (black lentils) was as decadent as any I have tasted, cooked overnight in butter and cream and seasoned to order on a hot and spicy scale. It was served in a lovely silver dish with a blend of biryani rices that had been prepared three ways: in water, in beet root stock and in saffron treated stock. Dhal banjara (yellow lentils) were cooked with mustard seed. Mattar paneer (homemade cheese) was cooked with green peas. Paneer makhani was cooked with tomato and honey sauce. Palak paneer was made with spinach and fenugreek. Cauliflower (gobi) was treated more like a stir-fry dish than a curry, with potatoes, chilies, turmeric, onions and tomatoes. Shrimp, goat, chicken and fish are given similar treatments as paneer.
My biggest disappointment is that the café does not offer thalis, compartmentalized trays popular in Gujarat that include small orders of many different things.
Side Dishes: Two years after being closed by the Younkers fire, the Partnership Building Food Court plans to reopen in April with a full lineup. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
280 West Hickman Road, Waukee
Monday 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., Tuesday – Friday 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. and 5-8:30 p.m. Saturday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. and 5-8 p.m.