Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Talk about dining in Saline County and many foodies who haven't spent much time there will scoff, but we've always thought the Benton/Bryant area had some hidden gems. From excellent authentic Mexican at Taqueria Azteca to the innovative deli fare at Arkansas Fresh Cafe, we've eaten plenty of good meals in the area, and the recent switch from "dry" to "wet" has only improved things. So when we started hearing rumors of good Indian food at a place called Desi Den right off state Highway 5 in Bryant, we were curious to see if another of these unsung culinary heroes had made a home in Saline County.
Of all the cuisines we eat during our culinary adventures, Indian is perhaps the one with which we are least familiar. But while we may not know the technical ins and outs of every dish we had at Desi Den, we do know what tastes good — and given how tasty everything was, we foresee getting to know Indian cuisine a lot better.
The restaurant's menu is large, and it has a little something for everyone: protein dishes featuring chicken and lamb, vegetable dishes (including some that are vegan-friendly), low-calorie "kebab factory" meals and even gluten-free options. Service is polite and friendly, and despite a small dining room, we'd call it one of the best restaurants to take a larger group of people with disparate dietary needs in Central Arkansas.
So what's good? Well, start off with an order of Vegetable Pakoras ($4.99), because these crispy vegetable fritters deep fried in chickpea batter were a huge hit with everyone at our table. The little hushpuppy-sized bites were subtly spiced and chock-full of diced veggies, with a crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside texture. Just as tasty were the Samosas ($2.99), filled with ground lamb or diced potatoes and peas — both versions are worth a bite, although the lamb was more to our liking. Can't decide? Order up the Desi Platter ($7.99) and enjoy a full selection of appetizers beyond just our two favorites.
We decided to stick with chicken for our main courses. The Chicken Tandori ($11.99) was a wonderful combination of tender chicken and smoked paprika flavor, and the 24-hour visit to a yogurt marinade provides it with a delightful brightness while keeping it moist and delicious. This dish is on the "low calorie" portion of the menu, but diners shouldn't think "low calorie" means "no flavor," because this dish was packed with it.
The dish that surprised us most was an order of Saag ($11.99), a spinach curry we honestly did not expect to like. Nothing personal to Desi Den with that expectation — we just usually prefer our spinach raw in salad form, finding that cooking the leafy green does little to help the flavor. Sometimes it feels good to be proven wrong, though, and this dish did so with flare. Like everything else we tried, the spices are present but not overwhelming, striking a compelling balance between savory, sweet and spicy.
The Chicken Tikka Masala ($11.99) might very well be the best version of the dish we've eaten, featuring perfectly cooked white meat swimming in a bright, vibrant sauce. Our mothers always told us that it was impolite to sop our plates in public with a piece of bread, but given the flavor of this tangy sauce, we imagine she'd forgive us for using an order of toasted naan ($1.99) to mop up every last drop. If we were to pick a favorite from our meals at Desi Den, this would be the one.
Almost as good as the tikka masala was the Chicken Makhini ($11.99), which again showed mastery of spice combinations on the part of the Desi Den kitchen. This version of the classic Indian butter chicken is served in a thick, creamy sauce that again had us reaching for the naan. The chicken is slow-cooked to tender, fall-apart perfection.
There were several dishes we spied on the menu that we didn't get a chance to try but that are on our future dining agenda. Chicken and Lamb Vindaloo are both marked as "very, very spicy," which we hope means the sort of head-shattering Indian cuisine we've eaten at other places. Chicken, lamb and shrimp Biryani also caught our eye, and as a rice lover, we hope to spend more time exploring rice-based dishes such as these. Cheese-covered naan seems to be something right up our alley as well, and the selection of desserts includes one called Gulab Jamun, which with its fried milk balls and cardamom syrup sounds like a great ending to any meal.
Is Desi Den worth a drive from Little Rock just to eat there? Our answer is an emphatic "yes." The friendly staff is very welcoming, and the food is prepared with such skill that we've put it on "the list" we keep of destination restaurants. It's a tasty experience that is sure to please eaters of all stripes — even folks who, like us, aren't overly familiar with Indian food.
Want to give Desi Den a try but just don't know what to order? Take advantage of its small (but tasty) weekend lunch buffet available Friday through Sunday. It's a great way for newbies to familiarize themselves with a variety of styles and find new favorites.