Every so often something triggers in us a wistful sort of Anglophilia. It could be a movie, a book, or a tasty glass of warm, flat beer that gives us this phony nostalgia, but the craving it brings is usually (and unsurprisingly) for English food. This week, instead of rushing out to find the nearest pasty or dousing 'chips' with vinegar, we decided to go for Britain's other national dish, Chicken Tikka Masala. This week's food fight, then, pits two local Indian restaurants against each other, and to add a little extra rivalry to the curry we picked two competing spots, Pasadena's All India Cafe and South Pasadena's own Radhika.
Turn the page to see who makes the most magical masala...
Old Town Pasadena, often swarmed by old folks during the day and giddy teenagers at night, is not exactly the culinary paradise that it claims to be. All India Cafe, along with a small handful of other places, bucks that trend. It is simple but nice inside, with a grown up sort of vibe. It is perhaps a little stuffy, but not enough to be upsetting. The menu, as you might imagine, includes specialties from the many different regions of India.
Their Chicken Tikka Masala is orange in color, thick and sometimes slightly lumpy with a sizable but not overwhelming amount of chopped chicken. The meat is high quality and cooked well; it is tender and its flavor stands out even through the cover of the sauce. And the masala sauce is delicious in its own right, rich and creamy with an excellent balance of spices and the underlying tomato sauce. The portion was large but not massive, and with rice and naan it was just about the right size.
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Radhika's location is very much the opposite of All India's. Radhika is on a sleepy part of Mission in South Pasadena, itself already a pretty sleepy little town. Parking is plentiful and there is a gold line stop directly across the street, if you're into that public transportation thing. Inside, Radhika has a lounge-like atmosphere, with dim lighting, a dark color scheme, and bumping Indian music videos on a lone TV. It bills itself as a "modern Indian bistro," which is probably what gave birth to the clubby aesthetic and also the very surprising menu. In addition to normal Indian fare like Vindaloo and an assortment of curries, Radhika makes seafood paella, ceviche tostadas, and lamb tacos. Strange, yes, but a little variety is not unwelcome, though it did make us wonder whether they would also be able to execute a nearly ubiquitous classic like Chicken Tikka Masala.
The kitchen answered that question with a resounding yes, producing a very solid version of the dish. It has a darker orange hue, much closer to red than All India Cafe's, and predictably the tomato was much more evident in the masala sauce. It was also considerably sweeter, almost but not quite overly so, and it was a little less viscous, more saucy than chunky. The chicken was cooked to the same high standard as All India Cafe's, but there was more of it in Radhika's version, an unquestionable plus. The price point at Radhika is slightly higher, but the size of the dish seems appropriately larger too.
On the merits of the food alone, this matchup is essentially a draw. Both restaurants make excellent versions of this staple of Anglo-Indian cuisine, and though they are slightly different we enjoyed them both equally. To break the tie, then, we'll admit our general distaste for the hectic parking and crowds of Old Town, and our love of the Gold Line and free, easy parking. Taking these things into account, we have no choice but to give the slight edge to the humble-ish newcomer from South Pasadena.