Straight up, no frills

Mati’s Indian Express

16th St And P St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 285-0532

The loss to Natomas is Midtown’s gain.

Mati’s Indian Express, formerly of Truxel Road, is now—sans “Indian Express”—on 16th next to Nishiki near P Street. If memory serves, and after years of Grateful Dead concerts it periodically doesn’t, the location was previously a Togo’s.

Mati’s ochre-walled dining area feels spacious but fills swiftly with the lunch crowd. Sitting near where the line forms to order can feel a bit close. There’s a cheerful and attentive Mom and daughter behind the counter. Always a plus. Mom ladles the buffet goods; daughter takes orders at the register. As has been noted here before, Indian restaurants in the greater downtown area are measured against Bombay Bar & Grill with its extensive menu, designer drinks, reasonable pricing, dutiful service and—most importantly—gifted chef. Mati’s isn’t Bombay. But, then again, it doesn’t pretend to be. What it does, however, it does well.

There’s a reason “Indian Express” was part of Mati’s previous title. A variety of dishes are offered daily in a buffet, but Mom serves instead of diners slopping stuff onto their own plates. Options are fairly straightforward: A small dish at $6.99 with rice and two items, and a large, which has up to four items, at $8.99. Subtract $1 if going vegetarian. There’s five dishes in the daily veg rotation, most of them vegan. Offerings run the gamut from mild to spicy, although the temperature of spicy is well within tolerance except for the most heat adverse.

On the initial visit, Mom says the darkly thick lamb curry isn’t as hot as the lamb vindaloo. Very well, make it vindaloo. The chicken curry is on a par with the vindaloo, she says. Sweet. Bring it on. She suggests, if fire is the desire, the shahi paneer, with its peas and cubes of cheese submerged in a creamy tomato sauce. All these are ladled around a mound of basmati in the circular hollow of square-edged bowl.

While none of the three are volcanic by any stretch, the paneer provides the least heat and, therefore, receives an extra dose of onion chutney. “You do like it spicy,” Mom says, filling a request for three small clear plastic cups of mango chutney and two of onion. These come from inside a refrigerator and, in the case of the mango chutney, don’t pour smoothly from their containers. The teeny containers inhibit engaging in as extensive dousing of chutney as desired. A possible solution would be a condiment station of onion, mango, tamarind and cilantro chutneys at which guests can serve themselves.

With or without chutney, the chicken curry is cardamom-crazy. Its aromatic tang rises above the sauce’s combination of spices with every-single-bite authority. The lead element in the vindaloo’s mélange is less obvious, although chili powder, garlic, cloves and cumin are clearly part of the equation.

On other visits, the aloo gobhi, a vegetarian option, is long on the sautéed cauliflower and a bit light on the potatoes. The butter chicken lives up to its name, prompting a musing as to whether Mom uses ghee. Certainly it’s the traditional choice of Indian and most other south-of-the-Himalayas chefs, and it is gluten-free, as is everything on the menu except the crunchy samosas, papadams and the naan.

Without hesitation, Mom recommends the garlic and cilantro naan over the plain. One taste and there’s no looking back. It’s moist and garlicky but not cloying and offers the perfect vehicle for cleaning the sides of the bowl or shoveling up more substantive parts of the bowl’s content. More adventurous than the butter chicken is the chicken tikka masala. Tikka is chicken marinated in yogurt and various spices then baked in a tandoori oven. The end product is immersed in a sauce, which, at Mati’s, is tomato-based with a bit of a zing, possibly from jalapeño. There’s Indian and other beers as well as varied fountain drinks.

This is straight-up, nicely prepared Indian food without frills. Mom and daughter make it even more appealing.