Any discussion of Indian food is complicated by the fact that there are so many varieties. In his massive tome, India Cookbook, author Pushpesh Pant identifies ten key culinary regions, each with "its own gastronomic traditions, but the regions have blurred boundaries and there are many shared techniques and tastes." Pant points out that the cuisine of India is as important as its monuments, art and literature: "With its wide variety of flavours, styles, ingredients and techniques, it should come as no surprise that the popularity of Indian food is on the increase around the world."
This is certainly true throughout Los Angeles, where there are dozens of wonderful and popular Indian restaurants. So many, in fact, that we narrowed our search to one very specific geographic area -- the west San Fernando Valley, which offers a diverse and inviting selection of Indian eateries. For our top 10 picks, turn the page:
10. Dilli Express:
When we wandered into Dilli Express, we actually were looking for another restaurant. It turned out that the prior place had closed, and there's now a new name, owners and menu, described as fusion and Indian. While the décor is a work-in-progress, the food is ready for its close-up. You order at the counter, either from a large list on the wall (including unexpected dishes like chicken curry taco and spinach chole burrito) or from that day's buffet, which is the best bargain. For $8 you get an all-you-can eat combo of mostly North Indian specialties. There are even cheaper vegetarian combos, as well. We're not always fans of self-service buffets, but props to this buffet, where there's a shield of glass separating hungry folks from the food. The wait staff fills your plate, but don't let that discourage you from going back as many times as you want. 8406 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Canoga Park; (818)347-6900.
9. Taste of India:
The first thing you'll notice upon entering this cozy restaurant located between Ralphs and Sprouts, is how dark the interior is, with such low lighting that at some tables it's hard to read the menu. Never mind. You can close your eyes and point to any page and find something to enjoy, especially if you're an adventurous eater who is not intimidated by dishes like pudhina mutton (goat meat cooked on a slow fire, with a ginger, garlic and mint gravy) or nargisi kofta (lamb meatballs.) There are many signature North Indian specialties, such as onion kulcha, a naan stuffed with onions and seasoned with a mild mint sauce. Desserts include mango ice cream and gulab jamun (savory, deep fried cheese balls with rose syrup.) The best bargains are the combination dinners for around $15, with two entrees, rice, naan and salad or raita. On weekends there's an all-you-can-eat Champagne buffet for $12.95. 21833 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills; (818) 999-0600.
This family run café in the heart of the Encino business district features homemade specialties from South India such as dosa (savory pancakes) and also from the north (tandoori dishes.) There are Indo-Chinese options, like chili chicken and other daily hybrid specials. Save room for the made-from-scratch desserts, including chikki, a candy with almonds and pistachios, and grajjar halwa, a lovely carrot pudding. You can order a variety of curries a la carte, but the best deal is the very popular weekday lunch buffet for $8.75 (on weekends and holidays it's $10.75.) There's also a dinner combo for $11.95. 16260 Ventura Blvd., Encino; (818) 325-2500.
Before anyone gets upset, we're aware that half of the west SFV residents are on Team Anarbagh and the rest are on Team Shalimar, which is down the street. We're not going to take sides -- we think both restaurants are nice places to go for an evening out or a special lunch. Bring a friend with you to Anarbagh, because there are a lot of deals for duos, starting with a mixed vegetarian appetizer, with onion bhaje, vegetables, samosas and pakora, for $6.95. Midday, there's the Executive Lunch for two, for $18.95 (not to be confused with the Business People Lunch for two, $16.95.) There's a big selection of chicken, lamb, seafood, as well our favorites: more than two dozen great vegetarian entrees. We especially like the sag paneer, spinach and cheese cooked with onions, tomatoes and herbs, the best version of this classic we've had anywhere. Dishes can be ordered from very mild to very hot. We found medium pretty intense (in a good way) -- so be warned. 22721 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills; (818) 224-3929.
This family-owned restaurant has been on the boulevard since 1983, with chef Salik Miah running the kitchen. The menu represents multiple regions of India, with traditional tandoori dishes, Punjab-style lamb and beef and a big selection of Bengali fish and seafood. We tend to go overboard on the appetizers, especially the vegetable samosas (with an order of mango chutney on the side) and savory papadam (lentil wafers), which are highly addictive. There are distinctive breads, including one that is grilled and stuffed with spiced potatoes and cauliflower (aloo gobi paratha). Monday through Friday there's a lunch buffet for $7.99, which is a good way to sample the eclectic cuisine. 23011 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills; (818) 225-7794.
The first time we visited here it was barely noon on a Sunday and the car thermometer read 99 degrees -- no one in their right mind should have been in the mood for hot, spicy food. Yet the place was packed, which tells you something about how popular it is. When we arrived, a party was just beginning in the adjacent banquet room. As we watched the steaming trays being brought in, we were seriously tempted to crash the festivities and made a mental note to someday have a party there, or at least wrangle an invitation to one. Until then, we'll be happy to keep sampling the many North Indian dishes offered in this family-run restaurant. We especially like the entrees from the clay oven, such as tandoori vegetables. While these look deceptively simple, each bite brings a burst of mystery spices. There are more than a dozen breads on the menu, including Peshawari naan, stuffed with cashews, raisins, cherries and coconut. Big crowd magnets are the daily lunch buffet for $7.49 and a Saturday and Sunday Champagne brunch for $10.95. 22323 Sherman Way, #11, Canoga Park; (818) 992-0913.
Selfishly, we're kind of reluctant to spread the word about this incredible place, because it will just get more crowded. Once you eat here, you'll be back for more. This is a no frills, vegetarian, cafeteria-style eatery connected to a grocery store. The line is typically chaotic -- and that's part of the fun. Try to scope out what you plan to order before it's your turn, because you won't make any friends if you engage in a long discussion with the servers about what's what. Trust us, it's all great, even if you don't know what you're eating. For about five bucks you can get one of the specials, which will give you an overflowing plate. The masala dosa (stuffed pancake) and chai are considered some of the best in town. For the sweets part of the equation, pick something from the bakery case or get yourself a popsicle in the grocery store. 22011 Sherman Way, Canoga Park; (818) 887-0868.
Drive here from outside the SFV, and you're going to feel like you're traveling to the end of the earth. Look on the bright side -- if you start on Topanga Canyon by the ocean and take it all the way to Devonshire Street, you will experience a multitude of microclimates. Make it a road trip. You can sharpen your shopping skills at the Westfield Topanga Mall or get a different kind of workout hiking or rock climbing at Stoney Point Park in Chatsworth. Either way, bring a hearty appetite for lunch or an early dinner (they close at 8 p.m.) to this small, family-run eatery. We're big fans of the Mumbai street food, especially pani puri, little puffs filled with potatoes, garbanzo beans and chutney. Another favorite is the uttapum, soft crepes topped with vegetables. Owner and chef Bharati Gholkar often stops by the tables to help you figure out what you want to order, and she'll tweak the menu if you have any dietary concerns. 21032 Devonshire St., Chatsworth; (818) 534-8267.
2. Agra Tandoori:
Say what you will about the Kardashians, they (or someone on their team) have good taste in restaurants. On one of their infernal shows, the clan came here for dinner, helping put this Tarzana restaurant on the map. Even without reality television, Agra Tandoori already had a loyal following, with good reason. Not only is the food great but, of all the restaurants on our list, this is the nicest room in which to linger over your meal, especially when seated in one of the large, circular booths. We try to order something new whenever we're here; so far, our favorites are chicken mango masala, mushroom biryani and eggplant bharta. There's a good selection of Indian beer and a decent $4 glass of wine (how often can you say that?). The manager, Frank, is always charming and remembers you if you're a repeat customer. (And he'll graciously give you the discount, even when you forget your coupon.) 19560 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana; (818) 342-2290.
1. Taj Mahal:
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Located on the upper level of an awkwardly designed Encino plazo, Taj Mahal is definitely worth the trek up the stairs or the elevator ride from the free parking structure. Family owned and operated since 1993, there's a pleasant dining room and also an outside patio. Start off a winning meal with a chilled lassi yogurt drink (sweet, salted or mango) or share one of the four Indian beers. All of the reasonably priced entrees come with basmati rice and raita. Our favorite dish is malai kofta, round vegetable fritters in a tomato and onion sauce. Also popular is fish vindaloo, Chilean sea bass cooked with potatoes and hot spices. Monday through Saturday there's an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet with some 15 choices, for $8.95. On Sunday the buffet has more than 20 items and unlimited Champagne for $10.95. 17815 Ventura Blvd., suite 201, Encino; 818-345-2244.
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