Buffet Bliss & Blah 

click to enlarge 20070327_175949_2_storyjpg
Chicken tandoori surrounded by (clockwise from top) naan, cauliflower and peas, tikka masala, goat curry, and steamed rice.
Spice Café
8515 Starcrest @ Loop 410
946-1309
11:30am-10pm Sun; 11am-10pm Mon-Thu; 11am-10:30pm
Fri & Sat
Cash only
Price range:
Buffets $6-$7.99; entrées $4.50-$7.99
Bathrooms not accessible
In 2001, Robin Cook, Tony Blair’s Foreign Minister, declared what many travelers had long held to be gospel: chicken tikka masala is a national dish of Britain. For various reasons, most of them geopolitical, Indian food has never had the same impact in this country. (Unlike Andean flute players and Thai cafés, each seemingly the most important export of their respective countries, there appears to be no government-supported apparatus churning out Indian culinary missionaries.)        But if an alliance were to be forged anywhere, it is tempting to imagine it happening here in the second home of chiles and mole. The reverse-colonization similarities are obvious, but certain shared affinities may be even more important — a fondness for goat is but one. If the border region between the U.S. and Mexico can spawn Tex-Mex, why should it not embrace Indian with equal ardor? And if the cuisines begin to influence one another in time, we can look forward to Raj-Mex. Or Raj-Tex, if you prefer.

The Indian buffet does have certain messianic aspects, and it is undeniably one of the best ways to put a toe in the great Ganges of flavors that characterize the Indian subcontinent. However, like Mexican cuisine, Indian cuisine is not a monolith. Spice Café, a modest enterprise attached to Prince Halal Food & Grocery, claims “exquisite Indian & Pakistani cuisine,” and it turns out that their Indian emphasis is northern, specifically Punjabi.

I got slightly different answers regarding the Pakistani part of the equation from the two people I queried. Both claimed that Pakistani cuisine is, in general, spicier and oilier than that of India, and that beef is more likely to be used. But whereas one said that Pakistani dishes tend to appear on the line on weekends, the other suggested that there was little difference between the foods of Punjab and Pakistan, which is just across the border. In any case, there was little difference between the food of a Wednesday and that of a Saturday. If you should encounter a smolderingly red beef dish on the buffet line, consider yourself lucky (or warned); I never did.

But I did come across some of the best naan in town. Light, flexible, and flaky, it is made to order and provides perfect scoops for leftover sauces. Starting with the motley stack of mis-matched plates at the right of the buffet, one first encounters the rices and biryanis, plenty with cauliflower and green peas. On one visit, a soupy but lively dal of yellow lentils followed, on another there was a mixed legume dish with chickpeas and tiny black lentils — modestly spicy but immensely appealing.

Vegetarian curries are also likely to appear, and I find the potato and pea irresistible. (Potatoes and peas also come together in the samosas, or pastry-encased turnovers, available at the end of the line if you’re lucky.) I also tried a mixed-vegetable curry, but it made less of an impression.

Both Spice Café and the adjacent Prince Market claim to sell halal, meat that is slaughtered according to Muslim law. I freely admit not knowing if this makes a difference in flavor, but Spice’s goat curry is especially good, even if the sauce is dauntingly brown and the pieces just as bony as you might find on a plate of cabrito al horno. The chicken dishes such as the creamy korma and the iconic tikka masala are pleasant but unremarkable. Onions, ginger, and garlic are the holy trinity of the evening cook, but the real heat comes from the spitfire cilantro and serrano chutney you’ll find on the condiment table along with a tart, thin yogurt that is a good foil for most of the buffet offerings. You may ignore the wan rice pudding and the simply strange mixed canned fruits in a pastel custard.

You shouldn’t ignore, however, the ironic contrast of sitting in Spice’s bright orange dining room, sparkling tapestry of the Taj Majal to one side, and watching cars pull through the drive-in lane at the neighboring Jack in the Box — blissfully (my fantasy) unaware that a mere 50 feet away lies an entirely different world of food and thought. Lacking variety and finesse, Spice may not rank in the top tier of the city’s Indian restaurants, but it’s a worthy part of the mosaic, and an occasional substitution of biryani for burgers can’t be all that challenging. At $6.99 for an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($7.99 for dinner), price is certainly not the issue.


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