I try to steer away from generalizations because they can always be disproved. You can get bad food at the cutest mom-and-pop diner and at the swankiest valet-parking destination restaurant. But if you want the most authentic ethnic cuisine, you would do well to check the suburban strip malls of America. When waves of immigrants arrive in the United States, they usually settle where it’s cheapest and open restaurants in cheap and convenient storefronts. They’re not looking to provide ambience, and you shouldn’t expect any. Again, that doesn’t mean the food is always going to be excellent. Not all of these budding restaurateurs ever set foot in a kitchen back home. But this is probably where you will find Mexican, Ethiopian or Vietnamese food undiluted by perceptions of what Anglos want.
Bombay Bistro fits into this strip-mall category, tucked as it is behind Mervyn’s, but this restaurant is definitely beginner-friendly. The space is more attractive than you would expect from the nondescript exterior, with upscale chandeliers and glossy, black chairs. The restaurant specializes in North Indian food and specifically in tandoori (clay oven) dishes from Punjab. The servers were friendly and attentive and made a genuine effort to introduce neophyte diners to the complexities of the menu. A special kids’ menu highlighting some of the milder dishes in smaller portions is a wonderful touch. Several combination plates are offered as specials for those who can’t make up their minds at dinner, and a lunch buffet is served all week long.
Bombay Bistro has an extensive list of appetizers, including lamb or vegetarian samosas and several varieties of pakora. It also has an entire section of tandoori appetizers. The tandoori mix grill ($12.99-$15.99), available as an appetizer or as a main course, is extremely popular, with a sizzling hot platter of yogurt-marinated chicken, lamb and shrimp.
I ordered a combination dinner, which included a bowl of dal (lentil soup), chicken tikka masala, lamb curry, dal makhni (lentils), rice, naan (flatbread) and rice pudding. The bistro’s version of dal proved to be a silken puree of yellow lentils spiced with garlic and a hint of lemon, with snippets of cilantro floating on top. The chicken tikka masala was excellent, with marinated cubes of chicken simmered in a spicy and creamy tomato sauce. The lamb curry was also quite good, with tender cubes of meat simmered in a dark curry sauce. Dishes ranged from the merely mouth-tingling to, in the case of one dish requested extra-spicy, searingly hot.
The dal makhni (black lentils cooked with onions, garlic, peppers and cilantro) was excellent. The taste was hauntingly reminiscent of harira, the Moroccan soup traditionally used to break the fast during Ramadan; perhaps this is an example of how cultural influences migrated hundreds of years ago. The restaurant has an extensive selection of vegetarian dishes, including dal makhni, all of which are in the $10-$12 range. The menu also has an unusually large selection of stuffed naan ($2.99-$3.49), including versions stuffed with nuts and cherries, with lamb and with paneer (cottage cheese).
The one dish we requested be extra spicy, the beef vindaloo, was the least successful, perhaps because the heat level obliterated any subtle undertones and left only a tangy vinegar flavor. Some delicious mango lassi helped quench the burning in our mouths, however, as did an excellent rice pudding sprinkled with chopped pistachios.
So far in my strip mall adventures, I have never had a bad meal. At worst, you will find decent food prepared honestly. At best, you will find yourself enraptured by a style of cooking you may have never tried before. You could do a lot worse. And Bombay Bistro proves you don’t have to venture to the wilds of South Sacramento; some of the best strip-mall dining can be found along Fulton Avenue or, as in this case, in Roseville.