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$4.99 Lunch Special at Masala Cuisine (Oakland)

Melanie Wong | Dec 7, 201007:45 PM

With a morning appointment in the southernmost part of Oakland a few weeks ago, I was sorely tempted to dash down to Fremont to grab a chaat lunch. With time at a premium, I talked myself out of it and instead turned north toward the Bay Bridge winding my way up International Blvd. to see what might be new. What I expected to find was Mexican or maybe Southeast Asian. But instead, my earlier thoughts of Indian food became reality, manifested in the façade of a new Indian place I spotted in between two taco truck locations. Masala Cuisine opened in August 2010, taking over a chicken and fish place.

I pulled over to take a closer look. Masala Cuisine is take-out only with transactions conducted via this bullet proof pass through window.

The husband–and-wife owners are Punjabi and offer a small menu of North Indian standards with an emphasis on snacks, parathas and vegetarian dishes, plus a smattering of (halal) lamb and chicken preps. In addition, the fried chicken, buffalo wings, catfish, burgers, and turkey sandwiches offered by the previous occupant are available. I wanted the chana bhatura ($4.99), but soon learned that not every item is available every day. Then I asked for okra, and was turned down there too.

The gentleman countered with the $4.99 lunch special, saying I could have all vegetarian or chicken curry and veggies, prepared to order and not from a steam table. This would come with rice and dal as well, and the vegetables of the day were carrots and peas. OK, sold me. He turned around toward his kitchen and started to prep without asking for payment in advance.

This was the tail end of our last heat wave, so I didn’t mind biding my time on the pavement on this sunny day. But after a few minutes, he asked me if I would like to come inside and opened the steel grate door. He apologized that they are not a sit-down restaurant but his wife had thought I would be more comfortable indoors and offered me a seat at the small kitchen table reserved for family members.

The wife held out this half-round and asked me if I’d like to try some Indian bread. Looking at it, I asked if it was a paratha and whether it was stuffed with methi. This made her giggle that I would recognize the flatbread. This turned out to be a gobi paratha, filled with naturally sweet cauliflower, which she reheated in the microwave and served with a cup of seasoned yogurt. Too damp from the heating method, but the paratha was quite tasty dipped into the mildly spiced yogurt.

While I waited for the remainder of my lunch to be cooked, I peppered the husband-chef with questions and learned that he had been part of the opening team at Maharani on Polk in SF. Then he had his own place in SOMA and later moved to Union City leaving the restaurant industry and getting involved in other enterprises. But with the economic downturn, he and his wife decided to go back to cooking and catering again. He told me that he’s making things homestyle, cooked to order, and made with less added fat than in restaurants.

Soon the rest of the lunch special was ready. The chicken had big chunks of juicy thigh meat bathed in a red-hued, tomatoey curry sauce. Great texture, plenty of heat for me. The husband solicited my opinion, specifically asking me how his food differed from the usual restaurant cooking. I told him that I liked the freshness of the taste and that the boneless, skinless halal chicken had a silken texture akin to sous vide cooking in fancy kitchens. While I did see him add some ghee, the curry had much less fat than found at Shalimar, for example.

The carrots and peas were prepped in a dry curry style. As evident from the photo, the veggies still looked like carrots and peas and not a grayish mush. I loved the dal, a soupy base of both whole and broken lentils flecked with toasty whole cumin seeds and other savory bits and not pasty at all. Accompanied by beautiful long-grained and fragrant basmati rice enriched with a bit of oil, it was all good.

My host ran off to make a delivery. The wife-owner chatted with me a bit about Indian dishes, apologizing for her halting English. Again, she laughed every time I used an Indian food term, quite tickled by my fondness for her country’s many cuisines. I got her to tell me that she uses there bunches of mustard greens and one bunch of spinach to make sarson ka saag, and with enough advanced notice she said she’d make it on the weekend along with maki ki roti, one of my favorite Punjabi dishes. She shared a jalebi she’d bought from a sweets shop in Union City. I felt like I was sitting at the kitchen table of a favorite auntie. When I said good-bye, she suggested that I call in my order next time for a shorter wait.

A tap on the window followed by a voice asking what $1.14 could buy was a reminder that Masala Cuisine inhabits a gritty neighborhood. The owner offered up a pair of pakora (usually $1.50) to that customer and won a grateful promise from her that she’d be back the next time she had some money. The food is tasty and fresh here and delivers the best value around for the money. Masala Cuisine shines brightly and is off to a good start.

Masala Cuisine
7912 International Blvd, Oakland, CA 94621

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