Fast, chaaty and lentils à go-go

Samosa Garden Taste of India

6608 Florin Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95828

(916) 427-9980

“Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right” is one of the Grateful Dead’s many open-ended aphorisms.

Light shown at Samosa Garden Taste of India, 6604 Florin Road.

California is the first place in civilization where such a diverse population has been brought together as equals. There’s something like 232 languages and dialects spoken in the Golden State’s schools. That’s threatening to some. Proof that California is ungovernable to others. But there are also those who see beauty and opportunity.

Samosa Garden is an Indian fast-food place: Plastic cutlery and Styrofoam plates are stacked beneath a painting of Sri Nanak Dev, founder of the Sikh religion. There are three lunch and dinner specials. Half its business is takeout, says doe-eyed Preeti from behind the register. Preeti’s mother, Kulvir, cooks everything. Preeti’s brother is the sous-chef and sherpa, schlepping large takeout orders to waiting automobiles.

Samosa conjures Latin dictator. Garden seems more Babylon than biryani. The window of Samosa Garden proclaims it a chaat house. Chaat means choice, Preeti says.

Chaat are a series of snacks, hot and cold. One is dahi puri, a fried ball filled with potatoes, garbanzos and tamarind and mint chutney covered with yogurt. It’s $2.99. Dahi wada, deep-fried lentil patties topped with curds and tamarind chutney, are $3.49.

Of the meals, the cheapest is the vegetable of the day with dal, the ubiquitous lentil dish, and either chapatti—a nan clone—or puri, fried bread. For $4.99, add yogurt and pakora, the deep-fried snack of choice on the subcontinent. The most expensive at $5.99 is meat, a vegetable of choice, rice and either of the two breads.

This day’s meat is chicken and the vegetables include eggplant, lentils, garbanzos and spinach saag. A customer compliments my choice of eggplant but praises the lentils, noting they are an Indian staple. I reply that it’s pretty much lentils à go-go in the Lucas household since the Mrs. went vegetarian.

“Good for the bones,” the gentleman says of the lentils.

Preeti refreshes my memory on lassi, the sweet or spicy yogurt drink native to the Punjab. I opt for juice and receive a can of Kern’s Peach Nectar for $1. For another buck I get two teeny cups of mint and tamarind chutney. Later, she gives me a second can of juice free.

As the other customers depart, Preeti faces a choice: chatting with me or watching Zee TV on the flat screen at the back of the restaurant. Zee wins initially, but then she asks if I live in the area.

No. “Why am I here?” she wonders. My business brought me to this part of town, I cagily reply. And I reckoned some spicy Indian food might help my cold. Kulvir comes out from the kitchen flashing a downright radiant smile. Mom and daughter swear sambar, a spicy lentil soup, is cold cure No. 1.

Beneath the counter is a multitude of Indian sweets and snacks. Preeti conducts a tour of the sweets, a new universe for me. Jalebi is an orange pretzel of chickpea flour covered in sugary syrup. A small sample recalls a churro, although no self-respecting churro would countenance saffron or cardamom powder as ingredients.

Then comes barfi, half-inch-thick squares of milk—both powdered and condensed—and sugar. Preeti proves barfi with pistachios is the most popular by showing, Perry Mason-like, there are the fewest of those squares left. Runners-up include barfi with almonds, cashews, orange food color and coconut. On the rack below is a panoply of gulab jamun, dumplings in a rose-flavored syrup. We don’t get to explore those because Kulvir offers a sample of raw pista barfi dough. Its gooey texture and sweet, milky taste are a perfect foil for the pistachio bits.

Not every day Nestlé’s chocolate-chip cookie dough gets its butt kicked.

Is it haute cuisine? Not even. It’s fast food, subcontinent style. But it’s got a clearly recurring clientele and, more importantly, it’s got Preeti at the counter and Kulvir in the kitchen. And that gives it heart.