All about that buffet

Lunchtime is the right time at local fave Priya

A sampler from Priya’s lunch buffet.

A sampler from Priya’s lunch buffet.

Photo by john domogma

Priya Indian Cuisine
2574 Esplanade
Open daily for lunch, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; and dinner, 5-9:30 p.m.

Priya Indian Cuisine

2574 The Esplanade
Chico, CA 95973

(530) 899-1055

The first thing I like about Priya, the Indian restaurant on The Esplanade, is that it has a distinctive name (“Priya” means “beloved”). It isn’t called “Taste of India” or “Taj Mahal,” as almost all other Indian restaurants are. It gets better.

Priya has a conventional lunch and dinner menu, but I ignore it and head straight for the buffet (available only at lunch). It’s cheaper ($10.95 vs. $15-$18 for menu meals) and has several advantages: 1) You get to eat right away—you can go straight to the buffet line and be at your table eating in about two minutes; 2) You can eat an infinite amount of food. I typically try to arrange my visits to Priya so I arrive hungry, stuff myself, and cruise through the rest of the day and evening, eating only a light salad for dinner; 3) Instead of looking at names on a menu, guessing what’s good, and living with the result, you can sample a dozen different dishes, then ignore the ones you don’t like and gorge on the ones you do. I encourage you to begin by taking one spoonful of every dish in Priya’s buffet; 4) You get to eat a little of a lot of things. The flavors of Indian food are intense, so I never want to eat an entire plate of any one taste.

Buffets have some drawbacks. For starters, you can’t get leftovers. The food, because it’s sitting out, can get cold or old. For this reason, you want to go to Priya when it’s busiest, so the food is moving through the pipeline at maximum speed. Additionally, certain kinds of dishes don’t show up in buffets. If you crave dishes that are pricey (shrimp), labor intensive (samosas), or unsuitable for ladling out of trays (dosas), you’ll have to order from the menu.

Another downside has to do with naan. American culture thinks of bread as something eternal—you buy a loaf of Safeway bread and it sits on your kitchen counter for months unaltered. Real bread is ephemeral. Naan is magnificent for 30 seconds, then good for 2 minutes, then it’s just cooked dough.

Hence the problem. Priya brings out trays of naan periodically, so the naan may be well past the serve-by date, or if business is slow you may sit for most of the meal waiting for any naan at all. So keep the naan tray in your peripheral vision at all times, and when the new naan emerges from the kitchen, sprint to the buffet table.

The elephant in the dining room in any Indian restaurant is the spiciness level. I’m a wimp when it comes to burn, so Priya’s very temperate heat level suits me fine. Priya’s owners, Raja and Venkata Reddy, admit they had to learn to dial the heat way down for American palates. If you order from the menu, they can make it as hot as you like.

Another way in which Priya is user-friendly is its labeling of dishes. No vindaloos and aloo tikkis here. The mixed vegetables in creamy sauce is called “Mixed Vegetables in Creamy Sauce,” for instance. There’s a low-key but not-to-be-missed hummus-like sauce made from coconut and chickpeas, called (can you guess?) “Coconut and Chickpea Sauce.”

But I don’t really read the labels. I think of all Indian dishes as “Something or other in a tasty sauce.” Priya’s sauces make anything taste good. All the flavors are fresh and bright and as good as any I’ve known. Priya is the only place where I eat cauliflower.

The restaurant’s buffet has little to offer in the way of desserts. A very nice kheer (rice pudding) and very mediocre fruit salad is it for weekdays. The buffet has gulab jamun (usually called “sweet ball”) on weekends. This may determine when you visit, because gulab jamun is food for the gods.