Photo by Anne Fishbein
On a stretch of Westwood Boulevard thick with student coffeehouses and Iranian hair salons, Ambala Dhaba is an outpost of the Punjab, a branch of a restaurant noted on Artesia’s Little India strip for its fiery goat curries and the boiled-milk ice cream called kulfi. It’s probably the only thing resembling traditional Indian food on the Westside since Madhu’s Dasaprakash moved to the Silicon Valley a few years ago. Ambala Dhaba exemplifies the time-honored side of meaty northern Indian cooking: basic, direct food almost Islamic in attitude, Pakistani in intensity of flavor, but wholly Indian in its attention to fresh vegetables, crunchy snacks, and breads.
In rural India, a dhaba is a kind of self-service roadside joint frequented by truckers: frequently mobbed, frequently equipped with cots for the weary drivers, and tinted with a reputation for great, steaming vats of creamy Punjabi food and a tolerance for the sorts of vices you might expect a long-distance truck driver to be interested in pursuing. In cities like Hyderabad and Calcutta, dhabas often pop up in unexpectedly posh neighborhoods, functioning more or less like Mel’s Diner or Johnny Rockets — self-consciously grungy bits of whatever the Indian equivalent of nostalgic Americana might be, delivering the frisson of naughtiness without any of the danger. Translated to Westwood, it is India without the elephants, without the gilt, without a single reference to the Moguls or the raj.
Ambala Dhaba feels about right, a bare room furnished with tables and booths just one step more luxurious than a fast-food restaurant’s; booming Punjabi bhangra instead of polite ragas; plastic water pitchers on the tables; and a haze of sandalwood fumes, drifting from incense sticks stuck into the gravelly soil of a potted plant, that will infuse your clothes long after you have gone back to the office. In the tiny parking lot out front, cars are constantly being shuffled to make room for the Hummers and giant Mercedes of the clients at the Lebanese restaurant next door. Inside, UCLA students try to figure out how to make a single $6.50 lunch special stretch to feed three.
It is kind of a minimum-service restaurant, and after you have grabbed a seat and consulted one of the menus scattered about, you wait in line at the counter and order the way you might at Arby’s, except that the shakes come in flavors like pistachio, a saffrony almond and mango, and — in contrast to the Artesia restaurant — food is served on actual dishes instead of Styrofoam plates.
Gol gappe, a popular north Indian snack, is similar to the Gujarat pani puri: thin, hollow fried shells, about the size and shape of lumpy pingpong balls, into which you spoon a pungent cold broth flavored with mustard and pepper, and perhaps a few chickpeas in a dressing of yogurt — you pop the balls whole into your mouth, where they practically explode a great burst of tartness, coolness and crunch. The yogurt-tamarind-chickpea mixture, chana, also douses the nicely toasted samosas stuffed with curried potatoes.
Saag makki di roti is one of the classic Punjabi preparations, a thick vegetable stew served with a vast cornmeal griddlecake, and Ambala Dhaba’s version is terrific: hot, crunchy pancake contrasting with the creamy, gently spiced spinach, summery flavors melting into one another with the assistance of probably a half-pint of ghee. The eggplant bharta is spicy, direct. Even the Urd dal, an Ambala Dhaba specialty, is wonderful and complex, dense as churned cream and deeply seasoned as any New Orleans red beans.
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A dhaba is inconceivable without the products of the tandoor — steaming breads, red-glowing skewers of marinated chicken or paneer cheese, even the occasional fish or shrimp — and Ambala Dhaba is no exception, although the tandoor-cooked dishes may lack the smoky savor you find in the Pakistani restaurants in the South Bay. Best is probably the Ludhiana chicken, a tandoor-roasted half-bird as encrusted with coarsely ground spice as a first-rate order of Jamaican jerk.
There are a lot of goat dishes, including a soothing dish of goat and spinach, a rather wet goat biryani, and a delicious plate of goat sautéed with onions and green chiles, but it is hard to imagine a better dish than the basic goat curry, a brilliant red stew that practically vibrates with cumin.
But my favorite part of a meal at Ambala Dhaba may be dessert. Indian ice cream, kulfi, can be pretty great, considerably denser than American ice cream, with a definite caramelized taste. The restaurant functions almost as an Indian ice cream parlor, with several flavors of house-made kulfi-on-a-stick available by the piece and by the bag, kulfi shakes made with pistachio, almond and mango, and even a mysterious dish known as kulfi-cut-in-bowl.
Ambala Dhaba, 1781 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, (310) 966-1772. Lunch and dinner, Tues.–Sun., noon to 10:30 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Food for two, $12–$20. MC, V.