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Restaurants & Bars 15

Rejoice! Finally, a decent Indian restaurant on the West Side.

paddy | Oct 15, 2002 11:09 PM

The new Ambala Dhaba in Westwood! 1781 Westwood Boulevard, just North of Santa Monica Boulevard, where Saffron used to be.
310 966 1772

During my time at University in the heart of Merrie England, I became addicted to Indian food. I’m not alone in this. Ask anyone schooled in the U.K., and in the Midlands in particular, and they’ll confirm that “curry,” in all its forms, is a staple of the British student, rather like pizza in the U.S. It’s a natural choice: it helps stave off the effects of the miserable climate; it’s usually exceptionally cheap, thanks to the large Indian-Bangladeshi-Pakistani population in the U.K; leftovers can keep in a refrigerator for indecently long periods of time; and, best of all, because it comes in a wide variety of heats, from the mildness of the korma to the incandescent blaze of the phaal, the consumption of curry can double as a thoroughly entertaining competitive sport.

So it was with considerable disappointment that I discovered that my new home in West L.A. was poorly served by Indian restaurants. I would have thought that the large British community here would have inspired a proliferation of quality curry houses, but the last two years of searching have revealed a bitter truth – West L.A., far from being a bastion of biriyani and a temple of tandoori, is home to a mediocre gaggle of second-rate buffets and over-priced chain restaurants. The last straw came several months ago, when I was lured into the Nawab of India in Santa Monica by the pristine tablecloths and the treacherous Zagat, which promised an excellent buffet. I should have known better, and, truth to tell, I wasn’t too surprised when I found myself chewing on a particularly tough piece of chicken that turned out to be a band aid.

My friend Sohini, who has sadly left us for Washington, D.C., suggested making the trek out to Artesia. Indeed, my wife makes the run there regularly to have her eyebrows “threaded,” (tmi, anyone?) so there should have been plenty of opportunity for me to sample the food there. Unfortunately, she’s had one too many bad curry experiences (my fault), which means I’ve never actually been able to chow down, down there.

So you can imagine my delight when I heard that one of the most celebrated restaurants on Pioneer Boulevard, Ambala Dhaba, had opened a branch in Westwood, a mere pebble’s lob from my house! It seems that Saffron, an Indian restaurant with an identity crisis, closed up shop a few months ago, and the Ambala Dhaba team moved right on in. Tom spotted the place as soon as it opened about a month ago, and we vowed to go, as soon as the wife’s back was turned.

It was everything I had hoped for: the air loud with Bhangra music, and thick with sweet incense, large paintings on the wall, garish neon sign behind the counter. Dhaba is a Punjabi word meaning “stall,” and Ambala Dhaba tries to be as unpretentious and stripped-down as the food stalls from which it draws its inspiration. And that means you shouldn’t go expecting silver salver service. You order and pay at the counter, you’ll be lucky if you can find parking outside (park around the block, it’s a two-minute walk), forget table cloths and linen napkins, and don’t expect them to turn the sound down. In other words, it’s all about the food.

And what food it is. Punjabi, which means the menu is very different from India’s Oven or the All India Café, but there are enough familiar dishes to keep the less adventurous from running screaming into the traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard: chicken tikka masala, chicken tandoori, your biryanis and your breads. But I suspect the true Chowhounds amoung you will be looking at the more intriguing parts of the menu, in particular under the heading “Bakra.” Bakra is goat, and it is Ambala Dhaba’s speciality.

Tom and I plumped for the Phagwara Bakra, purely because I had no idea what it was. We were hoping for a pleasant surprise and we weren’t disappointed. Chunks of tender meat, some off the bone, some on, stewed in a cumin-and-cilantro-spiced tomato sauce, tempered with yogurt, laced with a fistful of shards of onion cooked al dente, accompanied by an assortment of chutnies and mopped up with an absurdly large nan bread. Nine bucks for the lot, me hearties, and that was about the most expensive item on the menu. Some of the fish dishes are $10 each, but everything comes with nan, or rice, and has the tasty chutnies on the side. Most everything else costs between $4 and $7, and the chicken curry is an unbelievable $5, all in. That makes it about the best value meal on the West Side.

My vote went with the goat, but Tom waxed rhapsodical over the Ludhiana Chicken, named after a town in the the Punjab, according to a 1998 Los Angeles Times review. This dish looks a little like a pale imitations of tandoori chicken, and indeed it’s marinated in a mix of yogurt and spices, and cooked in a tandoor, but there the similarity ends. The meat is deliciously tender and highly spiced, and a nan is a necessity to temper the peppery flavor of aniseed mixed with fenugreek. Streets ahead of any of the burnt offerings that masquerade as tandoori chicken in most of the restaurants in this neck of the woods.

We were concerned that the low prices might mean small portions, so I played safe and ordered some keema samosas. The two fat envelopes arrived, bulging golden brown on a white plate, daring me to try to eat them in just two bites. But the first nibble showed me I had a battle on my hands. The thin, deep fried skin was crammed with spiced mince meat, which seemed to boil out of its casing as soon as I let the light in. The filling seemed a little dry initially, but once doused with a little chutney or sauce, it felt almost like a meal in itself, rather than an appetiser or a side.

Drink soda if you wish, but at least consider some of the more interesting beverages offered by Ambala Dhaba, including iced chai or Shikanvi, a fresh limeade. I’m something of a lassi fan myself, and I persuaded Tom to try a sweet lassi, which was frothy and refreshing, the natural tartness of the drink tempered by the sweet. I had the mango lassi, which was cool, with a deep mango taste and not so much texture that the drink was cloying.

The neon sign behind Ambala Dhaba’s counter advertises its “Culfi Korner,” a range of ice creams that use boiled-down milk as a base and come in exotic flavors, such as almond saffron, pista saffron, malai and mango. Get it cut into pieces, or on a stick, and if you’re really seeking a trip into the unknown, order the kheer or the Gajar Halwa.

Unfortunately it was lunchtime, and Tom and I both had to return to the grindstone, so I opted for a halway house and ordered a pistachio shake, which uses culfi as a base. This foaming beverage-dessert was ice cold, slightly nutty and not too sweet, and it offset the spices in the food perfectly. Quite an impressive finish, indeed.

As we rolled out and around the block to the car, I thought to myself that my quest for a a real Indian restaurant in West L.A. has ended at last. West L.A. patrons looking for “ethnicity” might be disappointed: the owners haven’t done much to the place since the Saffron crew moved out, and there are no turbaned waiters in white jackets hanging around to give it an “Indian feel.”

But once the food arrives, you’ll realize how authentic this place really is. It bills itself as a “Homestyle Indian Food” joint, and it has the prices to match, including Lunch specials of Curry, daal, rice, naan and pickles for just $5. The only thing we didn’t find authentic was that the place was almost empty. But that probably won’t last for long.

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