POSTED ON JUNE 20, 2012:
Tikka My Fancy
Indian cuisine restaurant is king of the court
Taj -- The Flavor
4107 S. Yale Ave.
Food: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Atmosphere: 3 out of 5 stars
Service: 3 out of 5 stars
So I get this craving. It's unmistakable, unyielding and only one thing will sate me. My palate needs a wake-up, something without mustard or ketchup. When you get the craving for Indian food, there are no substitutions. Nothing you can throw together in your average kitchen will resemble the flair and almost mystic characteristics of Indian recipes.
Luckily there are various experts around town and each kitchen churns out its own flavor. With Tulsa Indian food restaurants, everyone has a kitchen they prefer -- almost like preferring your aunt's meatloaf over your mom's. Among them all, there is one place that has been hiding in plain sight -- Taj-The Flavor Contemporary Cuisine.
Taj-The Flavor is located in the food court of the Promenade Mall at 41st and Yale. Nestled between a Greek restaurant and Chik-Fil-A, Indian fare may seem out of place. But if you notice, mall food courts aren't usually filled with common drive-thru options. Corn Dog Island? Only one place to go. Sbarro? I haven't ordered delivery from them lately -- or ever.
My first gyro was from a mall food court as a kid and Chinese was always a favorite. Ethnic foods and favorites from the state fair have always had a presence in malls, relying on relatively inexpensive, turnkey set-ups. So an Indian restaurant located in a mall food court isn't totally out of the realm of reason -- or taste.
One blustery day after a bout of regretful retail therapy, I threw caution to the wind, ordered the paneer from Taj-The Flavor. I transported both my take-out and my buyer's remorse home. I was regretful no longer when I dipped that signature naan into the creamy tikka masala sauce. I had truly found the best deal in the entire mall. I couldn't wait to return.
The foundation of good Indian fare starts with the pulav rice -- a basmati rice with hints of spice -- and the naan, an unleavened bread. These are used to sop up all the delicious sauces that form the delicious ambrosia of gravies that meat, vegetables or a paneer cheese simmer in. Spices are mixed in perfect measure -- powdered, whole and fresh herbs -- in a proprietary mix. It takes a chemist's touch to do create a curry that isn't heavy-handed, or a tikka masala that isn't just tomatoes and butter. The use of heat is also much different, relying on heated clay pots or "tandoori" to cook the unleavened naan or signature tandoori chicken.
If you haven't sampled Indian cuisine before, it can be overwhelming. It is nothing like the American palate. That's also what makes it so great. And Taj-The Flavor is a great place to sample all the standards and you'll quickly find a favorite.
Naan is central to the meal, and a couple of large, warm pieces are included with each order, but they also have Garlic Naan ($1.95) and Special Naan ($2.95) which has minced fruit and coconut stuffed into the bread. Both were excellent vehicles for their bright green chutney, a mixture of tamarind, lime juice and spices.
They were out of Samosas ($3.25), a pastry-like exterior filled with savory vegetables, so I went for the Taj Drumsticks (six for $4.95). These little guys had a great punch and were deep-fried to a rich caramel color. It was perfect to dunk in the chutney or the Indian "barbecue" sauce.
I'm a sucka for tikka masala, with its sinfully creamy, brightly flavored and beautifully colored sauce. It's perfect with chicken, a delight with vegetables and with the paneer cheese -- firm squares of cheese that have a ricotta-like texture and mild flavor. Taj's Paneer Tikka Masala ($6.95) was luscious, with a large serving of paneer and a tikka masala that had a perfect blend of seasonings, fresh herbs and smoky tomato cream. The accompanying pulav rice featured basmati, a longer-grained white rice, tender delicately flavored.
The Lamb Curry ($9.50) also came highly recommended and, admittedly, I was skeptical. That all changed when my nose caught the first hint of curry and my eyes were delighted by the succulent chunks of lamb in a mahogany-colored sauce. The tender and fresh lamb's lucky companion was the expertly-balanced curry sauce. It wasn't intense, but it was still bold and rich.
I just hit some of the basics on this trek, but I look forward to trying many of their other selections, like Saag Paneer ($5.95) with spinach simmered in rich sauces and the homemade paneer cheese; Tandoori Chicken (four pieces $5.95), tender chicken legs marinated in yogurt and Indian spices then cooked in the clay oven; and Dal ($5.50) a lentil dish with tomatoes and spices that is just one example of their vegan options.
So when your senses are summoned and the only things that will appease are the faraway spices and textures of Indian food, don't overlook this diamond in the rough. A jewel in a court, Taj-The Flavor truly creates cuisine that transcends its take-out façade.
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