Tandoori Oven on California Avenue in Palo Alto is fast-food Indian-style, with a menu that sticks to basics without much fanfare. The same ingredients are used to prepare a variety of dishes, whether steamed, grilled or cooked in the tandoori oven.
It's a busy place noontimes, and lines can be nearly out the door. The queue moves quickly, though, and orders are brought to tables within minutes. The grill is adjacent to the order/pay station and is easily visible in case you are intrigued about how your wrap is assembled.
"We don't have a freezer, so everything is fresh, and deliveries are every other day. We make everything in-house, from naan to yogurt," owner Mani Kabir said.
Opened in December 2008, Tandoori Oven is sandwiched between The Counter and Starbucks in a busy court. Kabir owns four other Peninsula locations and says more are on the way. The menu derives from family recipes but with a continental touch. "I was educated in Europe so the cooking style can best be described as Northern Indian-British," he said.
Kabir said that many Indian restaurants in American use too much butter and oil, but that his "home-cooked concept emphasizes 'fresh' with minimum amounts of oil." As for the tandoor oven, he said it requires no oil at all; radiant heat cooks foods quickly and evenly.
Indigenous to India and southeast Asia for centuries, the ovens are the ideal vessel for baking naan (bread) as well roasting chicken and lamb. Tandoori Oven in Palo Alto uses a glass-lined clay oven with tasty results.
Inside the restaurant, menu boards are awkwardly positioned, one high above the pay station and another off to one side. Unless one is familiar with Indian cuisine, the choices can be baffling. While I generally dislike photographs of entrees on menu boards, in this case, some guidance would help the uninitiated. Cashiers are knowledgeable and helpful, but no one wants to hold up the line by asking too many questions.
Overall, the prices are very good and the portions large. There are no desserts, so leave the sweet tooth behind. I thought the appetizers uninteresting but found just about every other item on the menu worthwhile. There is nothing delicate about this food. There are sometimes just layers of spices without subtlety, but that's a price paid for fast food.
The samosa appetizers ($4.97) were two deep-fried pyramid shells filled with cumin roasted potatoes bobbing in a pool of seasoned garbanzo beans. It was a heavy dish without much flavor wallop, with the tiny amount of herbed potato filling lost at sea.
Ditto the cholay bhature ($3.57). This time, the seasoned garbanzo beans were topped with diced red onion and cilantro. The dish was redeemed by the accompanying fried naan, though, which was airy, doughy and delightful.
Naan is also offered with a variety of fills. The chicken pesto naan ($3.97) was like a stuffed pizza minus the cheese. The chicken was minced and layered with the pesto inside the bread. The naan was grilled and served piping hot like flatbread. Turned out to be one of my favorite dishes: plenty to share, enough for a meal for one or complement with a cup of cucumber or potato salad ($1.97). Amazing prices.
Besides chicken pesto, other options include spicy ground lamb, spicy potato, paneer (a light Indian cheese), onion, garlic and a sweet version with coconut and raisins. Each order comes with house-made yogurt for dipping or topping.
Mixed grill ($12.47) featured seekh kabob (chunks of lamb seasoned with ground chili, ginger and spices); chicken kabob (marinated and spiced); tandoori shrimp, fire-engine red from spices; and caramelized onions and green bell pepper served on a sizzling platter with choice of naan or rice. Loads of tender meat, very filling, very successful.
I loved the spicy seekh kabob wrap ($7.97) with ground lamb that had been seasoned with green chilies and spices, onions and chutney, then wrapped in fresh, cloud-like naan. This was serious bite-back-spicy lamb, sinus-clearing spicy but not quite blistering. It lingered on the lips but the tingle quickly dissipated. It was easily the spiciest dish I had at Tandoori Oven, and perhaps the most satisfying as well.
Tamer was the chicken wrap ($7.67), which featured tender chunks of tandoori chicken, wedges of cucumber and creamy mint mayo bundled in baked naan. Tandoori chicken is the color of the Golden Gate Bridge, an orange-vermillion shading. The chicken is marinated in yogurt and seasoned with spices including turmeric and chili powder, which gave it the pulsating color.
No Indian restaurant in America, fast-food or otherwise, would be complete without curry dishes. Tandoori Oven offers chicken, lamb, shrimp and vegetarian variations, both a la carte and as dinners ($8.97-$12.97).
The tender chicken curry dinner ($10.97) came with basmati rice, fluffy naan and a side of stewed vegetables. The curry was lush and piquant, kissing the lips without tormenting the tongue.
Tables were promptly bussed and the place was always clean. The decor is inconsequential but looks more homemade than formulaic. The too-loud piped-in Indian pop music can be screechy, challenging the ears rather than soothing.
Tandoori Oven serves quick basic Indian fare, with good prices and generous portions. The food is well-prepared and the menu intriguing enough to keep it interesting.
I hope something is done to help educate those with little knowledge of Indian cuisine: photos, definitions or explanations. It's not that the place lacks for business, but lots of people are missing out on a good thing.
365 California Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Daily 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: shared patio
Party facilities: no
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: good