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We wanted to love Curry in a Hurry even before we tasted the food. But we were a bit skeptical when we pulled up to the convenience store on North Little Rock's Pike Avenue. We squinted dumbly at the inconspicuous entrance, nearly camouflaged by next door's neon beer ads. Once inside, we were puzzled by the absence of tables in the main room. We were ushered to a pale purple sideroom-cum-closet. It's large enough to hold a square table and not much else. "Slumdog Millionaire" was on the TV, remote in easy reach next to the upright roll of paper towels. Overly bright photos of entrees line the walls, and floral curtains cushioned diners from neighborhood happenings just beyond the walls.
The manager, Sahil Hameerani, an early-30s immigrant entrepreneur, recommended "the popular Chicken 65," and left us with menus — but not before informing us that the place is family owned and his dad does the cooking.
The menu includes such rarities as bheja masala (goat brain) that aren't Indian restaurant standards, but we ordered "spanich" pakora and chicken 65 to start. The spinach was lightly battered and deep fried, served with tamarind sauce. We could taste it through the chickpea crust. The bittersweet, salty meld had a satisfying texture.
Chicken 65 is usually boneless deep-fried chicken. In south Indian lore, it takes 65 days to age the marinade. When the dish arrived at our table, it was practically glowing from the overhead fluorescents. The showy red comes from hours of marinating in spices (and, we suspect, a bit of food coloring). For balance, it was garnished with crispy fried curry leaves and cool cilantro. This version of chicken 65 was barely fried, but it still made us long for the beer that Curry in a Hurry doesn't serve. It does offer a bright green basil juice, which makes a nice palate cleanser. It has a sugary, vanilla flavor and tiny, gummy seeds.
We were less impressed with the breaded pakora. The overwhelming flavor was "generic deep fried." If we chewed thoughtfully, a hint of cumin muscled through, but unless we're polishing off a night of heavy drinking, it's a dish we'll avoid.
The chicken 65 was tender and tangy, but despite its professed popularity, was less interesting than some of the other offerings. The seekh kabob — with a strong fennel undertone — was served in a delicious flaky naan. The vegetable curry will become a safe standard, with plump potatoes, carrots, peas and moderate heat. The spices are distinct, particularly ginger, and the fresh cilantro was a welcome touch. The mutton (in India mutton refers to goat) biryani was succulent, although the rice could have been a tad spicier.
Haleem, a mush of meat, barley and wheat, often resembles overcooked dahl. But in Curry in a Hurry's version, both meat and wheat still retained their separate properties, even as impossibly thin strips of beef melted into the sticky base.
Palak paneer was the standout. It's a dish often noted more for its texture than its flavor, but Curry in a Hurry mastered both. The spinach tasted fresh and not too gelatinous. The paneer — fresh cheese — was perfectly browned, firm and generous. There was just the right amount of creaminess and a subtle heat that didn't leave us scrambling for rice and water.
Dessert isn't on the menu, but when we asked, Hameerani brought us khir and gulab jammon. The khir was a bland, gritty rice pudding with almond flavoring and cashew topping. It's dessert for those who don't really like dessert. But the gulab jammon was the best we've ever tasted. Usually this donut-like dessert is much too heavy, a victim of its own thick, sickly-sweet syrup. But this syrup was light and the donut fresher and airier than we could have hoped.
In fact, fresh food and hospitality seemed to be the overriding theme of the odd little two-table restaurant. Hameerani was chatty, excited about his new venture and seeking honest feedback — and with the TV and private dining, he'd obviously put effort into making the space comfortable for patrons. Curry in a Hurry has no pretension and a lot of heart. It feels like a Southern approach to Indian cuisine. The portions are hearty, the prices are moderate but it's the authenticity — of both the food and the dream — that will bring us back.
This is the place to try goat brain or liver, and the Indian standards — curries, masalas and biryanis — are fresh and hearty. If there is space, dine in. The dining set up and friendly manager are part of the charm.