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Restaurants & Bars 6

Stara – Punjabi in Vallejo

Melanie Wong | Aug 16, 200410:16 PM

The first Indian restaurant to come to town is a goodie. After trying two solo dinners and two buffet lunches here, I feel Stara can hold its ground among many of the San Francisco and Berkeley spots in the curry dive series.

My first visit here for a dinner shortly after opening, I praised the naan when the proprietor stopped by to check on me. Stretched with uneven surfaces and varying thicknesses with a few holes in the center, the naan is cooked through and has chewy, crisp, fluffy, and tender textures all in one. I especially loved the layered effect and the richness of the brush of ghee. The owner explained to me that he hates doughy undercooked naan that too many places make and that he was proud of their version. He was so happy I had noticed the difference, he walked over to the kitchen and yelled to the cooks, “She likes the naan!” and then some other excited phrases in their own language. The kitchen staff peeked around the door to stare at me. I felt like I had made their day.

The weekday lunch buffet is $6.99. The tandoori chicken, made with thighs and drumsticks, has been juicy and saturated with flavorful spicing. It rocks with the incendiary green mint chutney. I was surprised to see goat masala offered (it’s not on the regular menu) out here in the hinterlands where few of the clientele are South Asian. But I was happy with this choice, as it was rich, complex and deep, although requiring some skill to pick the tender meat off the jagged bones. The chicken makhani was top notch, made with yogurt and the well-tuned blend of spices is not overwhelmed by the taste of cream and butterfat. A couple veggie curries (potato/eggplant, pakora curry) have been on the lean side, but the very spicy and complex channa masala was terrific. The basmati rice has a roasted quality to the individual firm grains and the raita is rich and thick. The naan is baked to order and brought to your table. I asked for mine with ghee. While I didn’t like the light-style kheer (rice pudding), the gulab jamun is tender and freshly made in a rose-scented syrup and even better if you ask for it to be heated in the microwave.

At dinnertime, the alloo tikki chat, $3.99, was a deep-fried crisp-edged huarache-like patty of smashed potatoes flecked with many spices, savory herbs, and veggies. The topping of channa was very tasty, as well as the accompanying green mint chutney and tamarind sauce.

The entrees are cooked to order and come with rice or plain naan. The lamb coconut, $9.99, was pretty bland even though I requested it “hot”. The chunks of precooked lamb were tired and stale. The sauce tasted mostly of boiled down sweet cream with a little coconut and some sweet spices, and really needed some capsicum heat to balance the sweetness. The proprietor was apologetic when I took this up with him, saying that he thought I’d need something less heated after the very spicy potato chat appetizer.

The chicken karahi, $9.99 featured stir-fried chunks of succulent dark meat with a heady blend of ginger, browned onions, garlic, tomatoes, and julienned bell peppers. The “dry” yellow gravy was just enough to coat the chicken and veggies and was not saucy. Presented in a mini-karahi, the serving size was enough for two meals.

The Kashmiri naan, $2.49, stuffed with ground nuts, coconut, and fennel seeds is nicely done here. It’s thin, tender, chewy and crispy as well. The mango lassi was fine but not remarkable.

A variety of housemade sweets are on display. The owners used to operate the local Swensen’s franchise and definitely have a sweet tooth. They comped me a leddoo that was a large saffron yellow-colored deep-fried ball. I took one bite of the dense, coconutty, very sweet, and starchy mass, and pronounced it too rich to eat after dinner. The wife suggested that I have it in the morning with a hot beverage to help wash it down.

In comparing the lunches with the dinners, it seemed to me that the cooking at lunchtime was a little more refined and seamless even though the food was precooked and held on the steam table. The dinner entrees were both on the rustic side and felt like they were from a different hand. My friend who joined me for lunch one time said that she and her husband had tried it for dinner earlier and our lunch buffet was much better. Ordering ala carte at lunch time might yield the best results.

While not the bargain that the Tenderloin places can offer, the quality and value match up well to say Khana Khazana or Mehak in the East Bay and beats some of the spots we tried in the Haight. There has been a steady stream of customers during my visits, but it hasn’t been busy and the hospitable staff can give their full attention. Wine and beer are available. Stara is located in a strip mall a stone’s throw away from the Redwood exit off Hwy. 80. It’s well worth knowing about for the next trip up to Tahoe.

Stara Indian Cuisine
(near Hwy 80, Redwood exit)
742 Admiral Callaghan Lane


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