Fast-food international

Our regular food writer, Greg Lucas, is on vacation and will return next week.

Mati’s Indian Express

16th St And P St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 285-0532

I’ve never been to India. I’ve been to England, though, which culinarily speaking is pretty close. OK, not really. But on some London streets Indian restaurants are like U.S. Starbucks: too damn many. And I’m told you won’t find offerings like chicken tikka masala, pretty much England’s de facto national dish, in India. So there’s that.

Here in Sacramento, Indian fare—fast or otherwise—is fewer and further between than abroad or in larger U.S. cities, probably even less authentic and, generally speaking, pricier. Great, affordable Indian places exist, sure, but pop up in the most unexpected of off-the-beaten-trail locales (think Udupi Cafe, in Gold River shopping center, or Chaat Café in deep west Roseville).

Mati’s Indian Express is one of those surprising Indian eateries. Hidden away in a maze of Natomas strip malls just south of Arco Arena, Mati’s is overshadowed by a bevy of nearby megasized chain eateries—B.J.’s, Hooters, Mimi’s Cafe—but only in terms of verticality. If you’re stuck in Natomas, Mati’s is a safe bet.

And it’s also worth the drive. Combo lunches—which include rice, naan and two dishes of choice—run under $6. All of the fare, sans naan, samosas and papadums, is gluten-free, with many vegan and vegetarian options. The setup is no frills, a Chipotle-like cafeteria system: orders at the counter, meals served on plastic plates and with plastic utensils, geared toward takeout business over dine-in.

Fast-food international indeed. And for under $20, two can eat foreign foods that still live up to our voracious American appetite’s standards.

Samosas come in threes and run $3.49, but disappoint: The pastry is overcooked, crunchy and suspect (possibly the pre-made phyllo variety), and the filing is a bland, food-processed mixture of potato, onion, spices and Mati’s ubiquitous peas. They lack garam masala or chili powder’s kick; my girlfriend and I left one and a half on the plate.

The garlic naan, however, is a standout. Served wrapped in foil, the flatbread is unexpectedly firm and a bit crunchy with just the right amount of garlic and chopped parsley. It’s vegan; four pieces set you back $2.29.

The naan is tasty on its own, but also useful for sampling Mati’s various sauces. The palak paneer, for example, is riddled with crumbled chunks of what normally are cubed cheese pieces; enter the naan, and Mati’s version of the customary dish evolves into a very American, Super Bowl-like spinach dip.

The other sauces impress, too. The girlfriend, what with her almost Manchester United-esque obsession for tikka masala, gives Mati’s version an enthusiastic thumbs up: underspiced (the way she likes it); lean, white-breast chicken cubes; a not-too-creamy, not-too-tomatoey base sauce. It disappears quickly.

Her curry vegetables, however, go uneaten: wet, lacking spice and trapped in tasteless cabbage quagmire. Not even the basmati rice—clumpy; flavorless; and without cardamom, cloves or cumin seed—could save this throwaway offering.

Mati’s upsides, though, are many. The aloo gobi’s cauliflower florets and al dente stalks—turmeric yellow and smartly flavored (not rendered inedible by a loose hand with the cumin and chili powder)—combined with chunky, steamy hot potatoes makes for a winner.

Mati’s lamb vindaloo also surprises, especially for a “fast-food” joint. The stewed lamb meat is tender and moist—cubed but coming apart almost like carnitas—and the vindaloo heat hits you late, and in a good way, like remembering where you placed your keys after 15 minutes of rummaging. Mati’s only lassi, mango, comes frosty cold in a see-through plastic cup and neutralizes the vindaloo’s chili-powder intensity. The girlfriend marvels at Mati’s soda fountain because it serves Fanta Orange.

Mati’s closes by 8:30 p.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. We dine alone out front on the “patio,” but—as per Mati’s expressive moniker—most diners are to-go. And to be sure, the service is fast, the eats are cheap and—generally speaking—the dishes’ mastery under control. Sorry, no drive-through.