When I first moved to Santa Barbara from near Los Angeles, I was greatly disappointed with certain aspects of the restaurant scene available to those who enjoy many different types of food. Essentially, restaurants in this region, especially those offering â€œexoticâ€ cuisines such as Thai or Indian food, choose to minimize the most intense flavors of their foods to make it easier for the average joe. While this isnâ€™t always a bad thing, for those of us with a proclivity towards heat and excitement in our food, it can make things a little frustrating at times.
One of the most frustrating areas for me has been finding an Indian restaurant that offers the wonderful, full-bodied spiciness inherent in this cuisine. I have yet to experience a fully promising Indian restaurant in Santa Barbara that fulfills this desire. There are still some things, however, that make these restaurants worth checking out. What comes to mind for me is the chance to have a typical sort of Indian lunch buffet.
Lunch buffets at Indian restaurants have become a tradition across the world. They are, in my opinion, the only routinely worthwhile buffet style meal you can partake in. Like the generic buffet, these buffets are all you can eat, but the the food choices make for a wonderful, and generally less expensive, option at lunchtime. Instead of the blander â€œAmericanaâ€ style dishes of mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, plain old fried chicken or roast beef, food at Indian lunch buffets are full of the enticing smells and flavors of the different regions in India. Whereas Western food generally grows cold, stale or otherwise less appealing as it sits at the buffet table, Indian food is such that it can be left sitting out and retain its full appeal throughout lunchtime.
Common dishes you will find are Tandoori chicken, which is chicken seasoned with a spicy tandoori masala and chili or cayenne pepper, chicken or lamb curry, various types of dahl (a thick, spicy stew from lentils, peas, or beans), the classic Naan bread (normal or generally with garlic added), and Korma (a milder curry, with vegetables or with meat, prepared with coconut milk), along with many other traditional Indian dishes. The choices vary from restaurant to restaurant (many restaurants have a specific region where most of their dishes originate from).
Fortunately, if you now find yourself in the mood to try out this wonderful lunch time opportunity, there are a few places within Santa Barbara that can fulfill your desire. The most immediate is of course Naan Stop in Isla Vista. This option is not recommended, however, if you are familiar with Indian Cuisine, prefer spicy foods, or want to experience a real Indian lunch buffet. Indeed, the food is left in the standard heating trays found at other Indian restaurants during lunchtime, but the way you are served is much more akin to the style of Panda Express than anything you would find in a normal restaurant. Naan Stop is perfect for the on the go person looking for a quick and cheap bite to eat with a tiny bit of that truly â€œexoticâ€ Indian flavor, and lacking a lot of spice.
The next couple of options I will discuss are found within Santa Barbara, both located on State Street. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, while none of these Indian lunch buffets truly satisfied my desired level of spiciness, it is still worth mentioning them as they stand to fulfill Santa Barbaraâ€™s Indian dining sector.
I will start with Spice Avenue Indian Restaurant. Located between Figueroa and Carrillo St, Spice Avenue does not live up to its name for those of us looking for the classic Indian flavor. It has a small yet overall acceptable buffet table, but no truly outstanding dishes that will leave you dying for more. The dishes were all prepared well enough, but that was pretty much as far as the chefs seemed to feel they needed to go with the buffet. The server brought my friend and I only one piece of Naan bread to eat with our meal, and needless to say it was not an adequate amount. The price was reasonable enough, at $7.95 a person, though still generally more expensive than Naan Stop after the price of drinks.
The other option in Santa Barbara that I most recommend is The Taj CafÃ©. While it costs a dollar more per person for this meal, there are definitely more options, which helps bring as much flavor as possible. This downplays the limitations on spiciness which seem to be unavoidable in Santa Barbara. This restaurant had what I would consider to be the best traditional type of Indian lunch buffet. Everything seemed to be getting the right amount of heat from the buffet trays. The pork curry was incredibly tender and juicy, the dahl was rich, and flavorful with just the right consistency, well fried vegetable pakoras, with some very interesting and delicious desserts as well. I most enjoyed the sweet carrot pudding and the heavy, but sumptuous Gulab Jumun, which are similar to doughnut holes in size but are deep fried and soaked in a sugar syrup with essence of rose and other spices. This restaurant also serves a delicious Indian Chai tea that offsets the flavors of the foods perfectly.
In sum, none of the Indian food in Santa Barbara will live up to the expectations of the most die hard fans of Indian flavor, but for those of you looking for a different and overall satisfying lunch experience, its always worth trying out something as special as the Indian lunch buffet.