Hidden in Plain Sight is a series in which we take a new look at an established restaurant. In our lust for newness and our obsession with “bests,” the fantastic unsung places that make up the bulk of our city's dining sometimes get overlooked. Here we aim to acknowledge, examine and (often) celebrate those places.
It's been more than 200 years since the first curry house opened in London, and since then curry has become as much a national food of Britain as practically any other dish you can think of. But the Balti style of curry is much more recent than that. Thought to have originated in Birmingham in the late 1970s, Balti is a way to make curry quickly in a pressed-steel wok. It's one of those styles of cooking that owes its life to immigration, with some people thinking it traveled to Britain from Northern Pakistan while taking some cues and flavors from China, Tibet and, of course, India.
There are die-hard regionalists who claim that you still can't get a proper Balti bowl outside the urban area where it originated. But thanks to Hot Red Bus in Alhambra, you can get a pretty close approximation here in Southern California.
Hot Red Bus opened in October 2012, the project of a Brit of Indian descent, Sonny Sehmi, and his Texas-born wife, Sage Sehmi. The restaurant, which these days feels like a slightly beat-up fast food joint, is better known for its fish and chips, which have won it great loyalty. Recently Hot Red Bus has been in the news because it tried and failed to get a permit to sell beer. But for all that, its Balti bowls prove to be the most compelling reason to visit.
Cooked to order in back in one of the required large woks, the mild curries come over cumin-scented rice. You choose from grilled beef, a vegetarian option made from chickpeas and tofu, Madras chicken or chicken tikka. Sonny Sehmi will give you a small container of yogurt-mint sauce and instruct you to pour it over the top before eating.
For those obsessed with extreme spice, these curries will seem incredibly tame. But what they aren't is bland – the sweetness of peppers and onion and the aromatic spices are, in fact, incredibly comforting. And for about $7, it's one of the cheapest, most filling and honestly made lunches around.