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Thursday, March 29,2012

A distinctive Indian lunch buffet

By Clay Fong

For those old enough, you may remember 1985 as a dark time, mostly because that’s when McDonald’s launched the McDLT. In today’s recycling-conscious age, the McDLT probably wouldn’t exist. For those of you unfamiliar with this environmental atrocity, this was a burger adorned with lettuce and tomato that came in a double-chambered Styrofoam container. The purpose of this excessive packaging was explained by the voiceovers in the TV ads as, “You get a hot side hot, you get a cool side cool.” What this meant is the hot burger and half a bun were confined to one chamber, while the other held cool lettuce tomato, cheese and the other half bun.

 

I’ll reluctantly admit there was some wisdom underlying this isolation of temperatures and textures. One problem (of many) associated with McDonald’s burgers is they are often an amorphous mass, where meat, bun, cheese and toppings all blend together in an indistinguishable blob. The McDLT recognized this fault, and took steps to address the nearly unavoidable pitfalls of serving something prepared and held well in advance of consumption.

Beef certainly isn’t on the menu at Jai Ho, the 28th Street spinoff of a popular Aurora Indian eatery. On a recent excursion to sample their $9.99 lunch buffet, it was evident to friend Michael and I that the kitchen handily understands how to preserve distinct flavors and textures. That’s no small feat in a buffet setting, and they didn’t even have to resort to Styrofoam packaging to accomplish this.

Our first clue regarding Jai Ho’s flavor expertise came in the form of the $3.50 mango lassi. Most of these yogurt-based drinks are tooth-achingly sweet, but here the sugar was tempered by salt, an ingredient found in non-fruited versions of this beverage. This addition helped complement the subtle sweetness in the same way that salt enhances caramel as well as giving the drink an air of authenticity.

The creamy greens in the saag were also noteworthy for retaining a welcome hint of crispness, as opposed to the unappealingly mushy veggies found elsewhere. Michael was particularly enamored with this meatless option, deeming it “out of this world.” Another winner was the dosa, the crispy crepe with a hint of sourdough tang, here augmented with a tender vegetable filling. It’s worth noting this compelling choice wasn’t available at the buffet line, but was a freshly made preparation that our server automatically brought to our table.

But probably the best evidence of the distinct tastes on tap comes from comparing the Vindaloo and the Tikka Masala. Both are stew-like chicken dishes, perfect with rice, but they couldn’t be more different regarding spicing. The masala here was classic subcontinental-inspired comfort food, a mild tomato-based curry with the velvety suaveness of its cousin, butter chicken. The Vindaloo ably lived up to its piquant reputation with plenty of hot red chile, although not enough to obscure the taste of tender poultry.

Although it took a while to get our check, presenting a potential issue for those on tight lunch schedules, the food here makes for one of the better Indian buffets. I would have happily paid the full price of the lunch for a serving of either the punchy Vindaloo or smooth Tikka Masala with rice, and I am likely to return.

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