Don't look back

Taj Bar & Grill

Taj Bar & Grill

6400 Fair Oaks Blvd.

(916) 971-0115

Good for: classic Indian cuisine

Notable dishes: mango chicken

I rarely ever drive out to Carmichael because it is (to me) the same thing as driving to Maine: unreasonably far. However, once in a blue moon I get word of a restaurant that must be experienced. So I climb into my car, say goodbye to my loved ones and make the arduous trek.

Recently, without provisions or Sherpa, I made my way up the winding road of Fair Oaks Boulevard. At one point, I was sure I had abandoned all civilization to become surrounded by only chain restaurants and cheap fast food. Surely the food gods had forsaken me. Suddenly, a neon yellow sign welcomed me and guided me to the safety of Taj Bar & Grill.

We entered and ordered quickly from the extensive menu, getting a bit of culinary advice from the very friendly and knowledgeable staff.

The pakoras arrived searing hot in a crispy chickpea flour jacket and laced with plenty of turmeric. A variety of dipping sauces also arrived with them: a refreshing and mild mint chutney, a sweet tamarind sauce, and a dismal mango sauce that tasted like an off-putting Italian dressing.

The garlic naan reeked of jarred garlic, and so we stuck to the comforting, unadorned naan.

The aloo tikki—a type of spiced potato croquette—came to the table tender as can be. It generously absorbed the tamarind sauce and made for a fun Indian take on fries and ketchup.

The lamb samosas were rather disappointing creatures as the lamb was poorly spiced and poorly bound. Best to stick with the potato and pea samosas, which here are shot with bit of turmeric and generously seasoned. They’re served so hot that by splitting one open you could cook another samosa in the steam.

The mango chicken was the hit of the night. A sweet, fruity sauce spiked with cilantro and a bit of chili pepper nuzzles itself around meaty chunks of chicken. The dish is heady and intoxicating—first-date food at its finest.

A shrimp curry pulls off what can sometimes be impossible: perfectly cooked shrimp suspended in near-boiling liquid. The kicker with seafood soups, stews and curries is that the shrimp can go from succulent to Super Ball in the time it takes to travel from kitchen to table. Here, the shrimp arrived plump and submissive and remained that way for much of the meal before eventual heat death set in. (Shrimp + Heat + Time = Rubber is an immutable equation in cooking.) The spicy curry fanned a cayenne heat across the shellfish and against the back of our throats.

The baingan bharta—seared eggplant mashed with peas, herbs and curry—will convert any eggplant hater into a devout lover of the humble aubergine. It’s savory, smoky and sultry.

A creamy lamb korma then took its turn seducing the table. The korma—a cashew-based sauce—was soft and velvety. Possibly the best I’ve ever eaten.

The tandoori chicken, if anything, was the one true miss of the meal. Lukewarm at best and barely seasoned. You would be hard pressed to find bland tandoori but somehow Taj can find it.

Overall, the food is phenomenal at Taj and I promised myself to come out again. By and far, it’s probably some of the most flavorful Indian food I’ve found in the region, and certainly some of the best priced. Just a bit over $80 and we had more than enough food that everyone at the table took home leftovers for days.

If you know what to order, then Taj offers some of the best Indian food for the best deal. Gather your peeps, make the trek and you won’t look back.