Passage to West Sacramento

Pooja Indian Grill

1225 Merkley Ave.
West Sacramento, CA 95691

(916) 375-8906

A decade-and-a-half ago, I was home from college for the summer, looking for a job. But not just any job! I had completed my freshman year of college back East. I had worked on the school paper, and I thought myself eminently deserving of a fancy paid internship. Well, pride goeth before a fall.

It was the middle of the first Bush presidency, and there were no jobs. I ended up working in a hot warehouse in West Sacramento, packing unsold books to send back to publishers. I took the job partly out of desperation and partly because I thought packing books might at least let me read on my breaks. But the big flop of that publishing season was a Far Side cartoon book called Wiener Dog Art, which gives you some sense of how well the literary pretensions of the returns meshed with my own considerable literary pretensions.

Innumerable boxes of Wiener Dog Art later, I was delighted to use the need to have my wisdom teeth pulled as an excuse to quit. I never looked back, and except for speeding through on trips to and from the Bay Area, I never went back to West Sacramento either. I certainly wouldn’t have made a nostalgic trip for the food. My culinary memories of that summer revolve around stale doughnuts from the truck that blared its semi-melodic horn during our morning break and uninspiring sandwiches from the deli across the parking lot. Glimpses of Eppie’s Restaurant from the freeway didn’t give me much hope of greater things, should I have ventured elsewhere.

However, a recent tip from a reader gave me both hope of better things and a reason to cross the river. Pooja Indian Grill, not far from the freeway and Raley Field, offers excellent North Indian food that made me see the error of my ways. When we went, the restaurant was all but deserted, but it was brightly lit and had a promising, richly spicy scent in the air. The menu—its cover adorned with a pair of bejeweled hands—offered the usual Indian-restaurant suspects, from chicken tikka masala to a wide range of biryanis. But there was also a delicious-looking selection of appetizers and naans and other flatbreads, plus some interesting vegetarian dishes. There are several beers (with three from India), and there’s a nice selection of nonalcoholic drinks, with a pale-yellow, flavorful mango lassi as the standout.

Although I would have liked to try almost all of the appetizers (particularly the paneer bhatura, puffy bread stuffed with Indian cheese), we restrained ourselves and ordered the mixed appetizer plate. A deal at $3.99, it was plenty for two: one plump vegetable samosa, with an ultra-flaky crust and a delicately spiced interior; a crisp, peppery papadum; and several salty, spicy, crisp mixed-vegetable pakoras. Pakoras can be limp and tired, but these were freshly fried, piping hot and delicious. The hot green and sweet tamarind chutneys that came with the plate were bright and fresh, complementing all of the appetizers.

We had just finished those when our main courses arrived—or, rather, our main courses and then some. The menu offers the option of ordering dishes à la carte or as a dinner with dal (spiced lentils), aromatic rice, raita (cucumber-yogurt sauce), naan and a dessert. Not only is the dinner plate a delicious bargain, but it also has a lovely presentation. Each feast came on a stainless-steel platter, with the individual dishes arranged around the edge in stainless bowls. My husband’s mixed tandoori grill arrived sizzling and smoking, accompanying the large plate.

The mixed grill was an excellent way to try a lot of the different tandoori meats offered. At $16.99, it easily could have served two, and I nibbled away at its various offerings as he did. I particularly liked the tender, moist dark-meat chicken and the sheek kabob (spiced minced lamb on skewers).

I ordered a vegetarian dish, navratan shahi korma, described on the menu as vegetables with homemade cheese in a creamy sauce. I might have wished for a few more and different vegetables—it seemed to be mainly chunks of potato and carrot and peas, without much textural variation—but the mild yellow sauce was lovely and rich, and the bits of soft cheese added a sweet note. It was equally good when sopped up with the warm naan or eaten over the aromatically spiced rice. I also loved both with the dal that came alongside. Usually I find dal uninteresting; all too often it seems to be little more than an obligatory bowl of watery, pale dullness. Not so, however, at Pooja Indian Grill. The thick, spicy dal was one of the best things we tried.

The center of each platter was reserved for a little bowl of kheer (rice pudding). I loved its gently aromatic flavor, but my husband was put off by the loose texture. It’s really more grains of rice floating in barely thickened, sweet milk than pudding as Westerners know it. Still, it had its charms, to my palate at least—just as I now know West Sacramento does. In the future, I suspect I’ll venture over the river more often, heading west for a taste of India and the East.