I'm one of those picky eaters that rates an ethnic food restaurant based on its version of my favorite dish. For instance, if you do Thai, you'd better have a killer green curry coconut shrimp. Italian: Your pesto (with gnocchi, preferably) must be thick and ample. Sushi joint: Melt-like-butter unagi seals the deal.
As for Indian cuisine, it's the saag paneer that wins my love and repeat patronage. India Palace concocts the spinach and cheese-chunk dish famously. Manager Raj Gill says it's because the kitchen makes its own cheese, a "grilled cottage cheese" as the menu describes it, in-house. I have a strong suspicion that the reason also lies in former Mirch Masala head chef Chanchal Singh, who's been with India Palace since it opened roughly two years ago.
The Springs hosts several worthwhile Indian restaurants, each with its own loyal following. It's probably fair to say that competition's tough, and restaurants feel pressure to somehow set themselves aside from the pack. If they're going to opt for traditional items, they'd benefit from being rich and memorable.
This is how I've found India Palace to be, over the course of several visits. Aside from a unique Indo-Chinese portion of the menu, India Palace dishes up consistent, quality versions of popular India dishes in an as-good-as-a-strip-mall-location-gets atmosphere of simple Indian dcor.
The evening I devoured the saag paneer ($9.95) with a garlic naan, a clay-oven-warmed flat bread ($2.50), we started our meal with a satisfying vegetarian sampler appetizer ($5.95) of deep-fried vegetables, potatoes and onions. I followed that with the thick and spicy Kashmir curry ($9.95). We drank mango lassis ($2.95) yogurt-based smoothies that are another caliber-indicator of fine Indian fare that were sweet and delicious.
A large-bottle Taj Mahal Indian beer ($7), light, crisp and a hint salty, paired nicely with the entres. A friend at my table was very pleased by his dosa, a stuffed crepe so large that it overhung the plate on both sides.
On a subsequent visit to the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($7.95), which owner Rhama Sesh says changes daily, we were able to sample more than a dozen starters, entres and desserts. The buffet, broken into northern- and southern-style specialties, was well attended-to, and warm tandoori-oven naan arrived at the table directly from the kitchen.
Beginning with masala vada, small croquettes of spiced lentils, and aloo tikki, deep-fried baked potatoes, I stacked both lemon- and saffron-flavored rice on my plate and scooped from the numerous vegetable and few meat plates available. Each dish carried a distinct, well-executed taste.
Of particular note on the meat side was the chicken tikka masala, sauted in a mild cream sauce. Of the veggies, a completely mild and somewhat floral eggplant masala dish earned the largest scoop on my second helping at the buffet line.
For dessert, with real estate scarce in my stomach, I opted for a small ramekin of both mango custard and rice pudding with almond slivers. Each was sweet enough that I was glad not to have gone for a small cupful.
With Indian food cravings that come on like mood swings, I'm glad to have found a reliable-remedy destination.
5644 N. Academy Blvd., 535-9196
For lunch: Open Monday, Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. For dinner: Open 5-10 p.m. daily.