Not just for vegan college students

Raja’s Tandoor

Raja’s Tandoor

207 Third St.
Davis, CA

(530) 753-9664

Even food reviewers have favorite joints that we hit up time and again. Yes, the food might be better elsewhere, the beer selection wider, etc., but it’s hard for any chef or heirloom lettuce to beat out nostalgia or personal taste.

That’s why I decided it was time to review Raja’s Tandoor in Davis. A place where as a student I spent many a lunch inhaling the buffet in a scene that could only be properly recounted in either a short story by Kafka or Lovecraft.

Raja’s is located upstairs in a crotchety wooden building that was built to withstand a nuclear bomb. Having been around for years, Raja’s enamored itself forever with the area’s ever-present student population with two simple words: lunch buffet.

Part of what also set Raja’s Tandoor apart was its early offerings of multiple vegan and vegetarian options far before such diets were more commonplace. Rather than a few simple sides, Raja’s ensures that most of its entrees are vegan, though you will find chicken and the occasional tikka masala dishes as well. Aside from the fluffy on the inside, slightly singed on the outside, terribly addictive naan, the bulk of the selections are also gluten-free.

The potato-and-pea samosas are a meal in and of themselves. It is highly recommended that you slather these with spicy chutney and seasoned raita for an elegant hot-cold dish that can only be achieved in Indian cuisine. A tamarind sauce is also available, but an overdose of sugar brutalizes the fruit’s natural tart flavor, making it taste like an infused simple syrup.

On a recent visit, the dal tasted heavy with turmeric, but lacking in mustard or cumin seed, leaving it somewhat bland. An egg curry with onion, cilantro and enough turmeric to dye a bolt of fabric was certainly yolky in flavor.

The chicken coconut curry is served with the bones still in, which encourages either deft utensil skills or a simple acceptance that more napkins will be required. Regardless, it is achingly creamy with a hint of heat.

The chana masala here is one of the best dishes by far. It usually tends to feature a strong butter taste but is actually cooked with canola oil here—you’d be surprised to learn it’s vegan. However, the tenderness of the chickpeas as well as the punch of the ginger and coriander makes it a dish worth returning for. The saag—spinach cooked down with coconut milk, ginger and chilies, and served with paneer—has a perky heat and is earthier than a Steinbeck novel.

A pudding of jasmine rice, whole milk and sugar is glorious in its simplicity. You would be remiss not to save room.

The mango lassi is a bright and refreshing palate cleanser—a way to move from tikka masala to chana masala, from bhindi to tandoori chicken. At $2 a glass, pick one up and spoil yourself. An anemic chai tea is also available, but instead of it being served as spices with tea and milk, this is more of a weak tea and milk with few spices. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Dinner at Raja’s won’t disappoint. The menu has set standard options, but lunch is where you’ll find unique dishes made on the fly by the kitchen, and everything is cooked with skill. However, Raja’s is a place for lunch where you race to snag a table before another group of students can and eat expertly crafted Indian food until you know that dinner won’t be a concern for the rest of the day.

There is better Indian food in the Sacramento region, yet Raja’s Tandoor offers flavorful Indian food—most of it vegan and vegetarian—in a slamming lunch buffet for $5.95. And you can also get it to go. Plus, Taranbir Chowdhury, the owner, is charming and knows his customers by name. When he asks you how you’re doing, he genuinely wants to know.

There isn’t a question as to why Raja’s has such a following. It is the very definition of the favorite neighborhood restaurant.