Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
"When in Rome ..." as the adage begins — that's what we applied in making a recent visit to Taj Mahal in West Little Rock, amid the many shops and restaurants on Market Street. The Romans in this case — maybe we should rephrase the adage as "When in New Delhi" — are several Indian ex-pats now calling Little Rock their home and working at UAMS, and all who swear by Taj Mahal as a truly authentic Indian experience.
It's not like Little Rock has presented many choices in Indian food over the years. Star of India with its genial owner, Sami Lal, has generally reigned supreme as the regular favorite, while assorted other attempts at Indian cuisine seem to have quickly come and gone. Two came and went just in recent months.
So off we went, and our first thoughts entering Taj Mahal were, "We love what you've done to the place." We remember when, as a poor new resident of Little Rock, we'd chow on cheap Tex-Mex and drink $1 beers when this was Way Out Willie's. It has housed other attempts at various cuisines since, but the "WOW" today is for the interior makeover the space has undergone to become a comfortable, faux Mumbai setting of Taj Mahal. The couple that accompanied us and who have visited at lunch, noted that the owner appears to regularly invest in improving the decor. It has a more upscale feel than other Indian restaurants (current and historic).
So, what we're saying is: Don't be fooled by the exterior, which fails to convey the feeling of "We've got great food here." Taj Mahal succeeds because of attentive if undermanned service (this was a Sunday night, and we had one server working seven tables) and a chef that puts much effort into a vast menu with myriad flavors.
There simply are too many choices for a first visit, so we leaned on our well-informed (American, college-age) server to direct us to his personal favorite dishes and the most popular to handle our party of four. We sought one appetizer, a good sampling of naan (bread), and four main entrees. We're not accustomed to fiery Indian flavor, and we're pretty basic in our Indian food likes (give us any curry every day and we'd be happy), so he took all that into consideration while highly recommending the goat.
"Goat?" asked our one finicky dining companion, who quickly heard, "Yes, we're having the goat and you don't have to eat it," from her grumpy life partner. The other couple, already experienced with Taj Mahal's buffet, was game so we went all out: goat vindaloo. That would be the hottest offering, our server said, though he'd make certain it was less-than-Indian spicy. Taj Majal's thinner masala sauce would be milder than vindaloo, he explained, and the curry was the least spicy of the three.
Finicky companion raised her hand for chicken curry, but she would find it hotter than expected. Shrimp masala covered our range of heat in the entrees and was complemented by an entree portion of saag paneer (spinach and cubed cheese).
Taj Mahal had us covered too with an assorted basket of naan (cheese, garlic, onion, etc.).
But, before all that, we began with appetizers of chicken and vegetable samosa chatt ($5.95 each).
The chicken samosa chatt was off the charts, both in flavor and in heat, and we knew in one bite why some of our UAMS friends were touting Taj Mahal so highly. This was Indian food spiced for the Indian palate, and it was going to take us some getting used to. The chicken samosa won out over the veggie only by a close margin. One appetizer was enough for four, with a large pastry split four ways and filled with chickpeas, tomatoes and topped with chutneys.
The naan was good, not great, with one piece slightly over-baked on the bottom. But the assorted basket ($7.95) also gave us enough info to suggest going immediately for the onion naan next time.
The bone-in goat (this is important, you must be careful with smaller bones within the meat) was as good as advertised. The rich, dark red vindaloo sauce did not overwhelm our heat sensors — the samosa appetizer had prepped us well. At $15.95 for the dish, there was perhaps too much potato and bone and not enough meat, but it was tender and tasty.
The sauce with the chicken curry ($11.95) was not as thick as we've experienced in restaurants here or in New York, but lack of thickness aside, it had a wonderful range of spices, and the chicken had been marinated spectacularly, offering scrumptious bite after bite.
Indian dishes have relatives throughout the world, such as the Caribbean (or even south Louisiana, in the way shrimp curry has the look and feel, if not the taste, of an etouffee). Such was the case with the shrimp masala ($16.95), with its spicy, tomatoey sauce with bell peppers and onions, reminding us of a burning-hot shrimp creole with a Jamaican touch. This masala ventured well past the vindaloo sauce in chili pepper heat, however.
The star of the night was the saag paneer ($9.95), absolutely the best we've had around here and as good as any we can recall having. It was creamy, though not overly so, and it retained much of the spinach flavor while seasoned perfectly and, yet again, offering some kick. We had leftovers, to be sure, and the saag paneer was maybe better on day two, to sop with some leftover naan.
We'd have tried some sweets — the menu has an overwhelming number of dessert choices as well — but between the naan and the complementary rice with the entrees, plus those oversized appetizers, t'was not to be. Maybe we should add that the beer also factored in — Taj Majal carries an assorted selection including Indian-brewed Taj Majal, Kingfisher and Flying Horse. Go for the Kingfisher ($6 per 22-oz bottle) and thank us later.
Much more awaits for us to try at Taj Mahal, and rest assured we will.