Eat, pray—and love

Pooja Indian Grill

1225 Merkley Ave.
West Sacramento, CA 95691

(916) 375-8906

Despite its name, nothing needs to be left to the Almighty at Pooja Indian Grill. The chefs backstage and the servers out front have everything covered nicely. Pooja—prayer or worship in Sanskrit—is both the name of the West Sacramento institution and the daughter of the matriarch of this impressive Indian eatery.

Like a number of places located in what the mayor would be eager to see described as the “old” part of West Sacramento, Pooja’s curb appeal isn’t its strongest asset. But, as with a number of other similar establishments, opening the door here reveals an undiscovered jewel.

The furnishings and wall hangings are lush, inviting but not ostentatious. It would be helpful, however, to be somewhere in the height range of, say, the mayor of the Munchkin City to be comfortable using the regal black and gilded chairs at the numerous tables. Taller patrons should opt for one of the booths that ring the spacious dining room.

Tall or small, this is an Indian restaurant deserving of an appetite. While lunch buffets at Indian establishments are not usually a Dish favorite, Pooja is an exception to make the rule. First, its buffet is bountiful. Actually, it’s bodacious: 2 to 3 pounds are gained simply by trying to sample the dizzying array of offerings. These include the ubiquitous tandoori chicken. Here, it’s flecked with onions and bell peppers that can be scraped from the chafing dish and tossed into the vegetable biryani to create a rice-based foundation upon which the swift-kick-to-the-palate saag paneer or the delicate chili chicken would be proud to reside.

There are also creamy daal (lentil) dishes. The daal soup defines the term. There’s also naan coming out of the ears and a beguiling baingan bhartha, which is a chunky but smooth-tasting eggplant puree.

Beware of bones in the lamb and goat curry: They’re part of the traditional package deal. Both curries—as well as the veggie version—are seasoned in such a way that even though the entwining of flavors trumps, the identification of the individual components is still easy.

Oranges, onions and raita—oh my!—are but a few of the condiments and accents available at the end of the long buffet trail.

With reverence, let these two words be a constant spiritual and gastronomic guide: onion bhajia. No lie, Dharma: These babies are the Swarga Loka of onion rings. The menu calls them fritters. That diminishes their omnipotence. The menu also says they are delicately seasoned and fried. This is like saying Yosemite is rocks, trees and dirt. If these fritters are fried, why is there no speck of oiliness? It’s far better without, but if there were oil, then BFD, since there’s also mango chutney and minty cilantro chutney to blanket the rings. This is the same frying method used for pakoras but damned if anywhere on the Internet is there an explanation as to how these onion rings can be so crisp, flavorful and oil adverse.

Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s, notice is served: The future of onion rings is here. Be bhajia.

Sadly, humans cannot live on onion bhajia alone—although if there’s a sign-up sheet for a clinical trial, please forward. On the lamb portion of the prodigious menu, the matriarch recommends the saag walla. There is some hesitation—given the basking-in-the-warm-bhajia-afterglow—since the lamb do piaza is cooked with grilled onions. But another good rule of thumb is to always hearken unto the matriarch.

Order a cup of chai. The cardamom and cinnamon in this tawny tea is killer.

There are some language issues, but whatever remains cloudy is concretely defined with clarity by those in the kitchen. In back and out front, the intent is to let every diner’s pooja be answered.