Indian, island-style

Tandoori Grill

Good for: Fijian-style Indian food
Notable dishes: goat palak, chef’s chicken, junglee murgi

Tandoori Grill

7208 Florin Mall Dr.
Sacramento, CA 95823

(916) 538-6812

After placing my order, a woman emerges from the kitchen.

“Have you had this dish before?”

“No,” I reply.

With a look of concern, she issues a warning: “The meat is very tender.”

The dish in question is junglee murga, a Fijian-style curry. When I requested it, a different server asked if I wanted junglee murgi or murga—a male or female chicken. I had no idea, but she thought the female meat was more tender. Then came the warning. Can chicken ever be too tender?

Here at Tandoori Grill, a four-month-old restaurant in south Sacramento, the chicken is, indeed, tender. Perhaps a better warning would have been that the hacked-up, bone-in chicken included gelatinous cartilage, slippery skin and shards of bone as tiny as a grain of rice. In other words, there was a lot of gum puncturing and spitting.

I didn’t mind too much, but it does seem like something deserving of caution—unlike my requests for high spice levels, which drew much worry from our server but never made me sweat.

Let’s rewind a bit: Tandoori Grill specializes in Fijian cuisine, but not the taro, coconut, cassava and fresh fish you might immediately think of from the island. In the 1800s, Britain sent tens of thousands of Indians to Fiji to work as indentured servants. After the system ended in 1916, many Indians stayed and even more traveled to join them. Today, just shy of 40 percent of Fiji’s population is ethnically Indian. That means many Indian curries are household favorites, adapted to what’s available in the region.

Tandoori Grill’s menu is stocked with Indian standards and a few less familiar items. On one visit, I asked a server which dishes are Fijian, and she rattled off most of the meat curries, noting that the chef is from Fiji. When I asked her what made them Fijian or how they tasted different from their traditional Indian counterparts, she had trouble answering. They’re just different.

Even after tasting many of the dishes, I’m having trouble as well.

Some curries, like the junglee murgi ($7.99) and duck curry ($10.99), feel more thin, oily and dominated by cumin. I preferred the chef’s chicken ($8.49), with moist, bone-in dark meat bathed in a thick and slightly tangy gravy bolstered by tomatoes. It didn’t taste quite like any other Indian dish I’ve had before.

Goat is common in Fiji, and the chef prepares it beautifully: moist and juicy bits of meat cling to their bones in the goat palak ($7.99), with a spinach curry that feels lighter and less creamy than at most local Indian restaurants.

One eyebrow-raiser on the menu is chicken chop suey ($7.99), a popular dish in Fiji that arrives exactly how you would expect it at an Americanized Chinese restaurant—which, consumed in between bites of strong Indian flavors from the rest of the menu, is somewhat startling.

But Tandoori Grill executes the basics well, whether it’s shaahi paneer’s ($6.99) velvety, tomato-based cream sauce or the spicy potato filling in the stretchy aloo paratha ($2.99), a whole-wheat bread.

Over three visits, the drab but spacious restaurant remained largely empty—to-go lunches seem most popular. It’s understandable given the lackluster atmosphere, where upholstered chairs often wear mystery stains and CNN keeps you company. And the lunch deals are excellent: an individual portion of an entree, rice, naan and salad for the same cost of one dish at dinner.

Next time, I’ll see if the male chicken is actually more tender.