Flavor. One doesn't often expect to find it for under $5 anywhere outside major urban areas. Drop in on any Polish, Greek, Italian or Indian restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and you'll be hard pressed to pay more than 5 bucks for some of the tastiest cuisine in the world.
Of course, the culinary diversity that comes with being the world's greatest immigration destination is to be expected. In Western mountain towns here at the edge of the plains, however, lowered expectations are always in order. Not to say that we don't have our fair share of tasty international sit-down dinners here in Colorado Springs, but price can be prohibitive for those on burrito budgets. Nevertheless, by this reviewer's standards, one of the first true signs of genuine urbanity is the existence of cheap, quick and delicious Indian food. And Taste of India Express, downtown at 117 E. Bijou St. (formerly the Utopia Caf) pays off in spades.
Opened in February by Tanwarpali Dhillon -- son of Tajinder Dhillon, owner of the sit-down restaurant Taste of India at 4820 Flintridge Dr. -- the little cafeteria at 117 W. Bijou is all charm and instant olfactory onslaught. The idea, said Dhillon, was to offer the same quality of food offered at his father's restaurant, but with faster service and more affordable prices.
"People complain it takes too long for food to cook and it's too expensive, and these are the problems we tried to fix [at Taste of India Express]," said Dhillon, who does all the cooking. "The drop in price doesn't in any way affect the quality. The recipes are all the same."
With a minimalist, 1950s automat aesthetic, the otherwise fast-foodish ambience of Taste of India Express is cozy and inviting in a pop art way that's entirely soothing. Brown-tiled floors and blue Formica tables are subsumed into the calming powder-blue walls with stripes of green, white and orange.
Don't be put off by the cafeteria-style steam table. All those aromatic spices, from cardamom to cinnamon, are just being absorbed by the food as it sits. With anywhere between 12 and 16 entrees steaming on any given day, you can't miss.
Here's how it works: Choose between a bowl with one entree ($3.99) and a plate with either two ($4.99) or three entrees ($5.99). Each choice comes with a generous helping of the house Pulao Rice (basmati rice and peas cooked with onion, ginger, cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon and clove).
Now the torture of true choice.
If you're a meat eater, the stars of the steam table at Taste of India Express are, hands down, the Butter Chicken and the Lamb Vindaloo. The chicken is prepared with a cream and curry sauce that cooks down until it reaches a buttery texture that tenderizes the cubes of boneless chicken, making a substantial stew -- the perfect lunchtime meal heaped over the rice. If your palate tends toward the adventurous, the Lamb Vindaloo is ridiculously good and hot without being so overly spicy as to obscure the rich taste of the meat. A combination of vinegar and Taste of India's own secret curry give the dish a tart tang that perfectly lifts its heft. The other meat and poultry dishes -- Tomato Chicken, Chicken Tikka and Beef Keema (ground beef) -- are all stellar too, so plan on coming back over and over again to find your favorites.
For the vegetarians, the options are just as dizzying. The Aloo Gobi (potatoes and cauliflower), Saag Paneer (pureed spinach with cubes of in-house homemade cheese), Shahi Rajmah (buttery smooth kidney beans), Chana Masala (garbanzo beans with a tomato curry sauce) are all stunning and make perfect complements to the meat dishes as well.
If you don't take kindly to steam tables, have no fear. There is also a menu of samosas, pakoras and tandoori items perfect for snacks or meals. Deep-fried with a batter made from gram flour (made from gram beans, which are akin to tiny garbonzos), the pakoras can be veggie (spinach and potato), chicken or homemade cheese. Dipped in your choice of a tangy green mint sauce or a tangy red tamarind sauce: mmmmm. Samosas (filled pastries) are also good, if not standard tasting, and are served with a helping of the chana masala. The Chicken Tandoori is also good, though it can't upstage the steam table chicken dishes, and is served on a bed of onions and peppers.
All of these meals either come with or can be served with Taste of India Express' incredibly light, freshly cooked and delicious buttered naan bread, which is cooked on the clay walls of their tandoori in the oven in the back.
Skip the fountain drinks, and top it all off with an organic chai tea or a sweet lassi, a homemade yogurt-based drink with rose water.
For dessert you can choose between kheer (rice pudding with almonds and raisins), ras malai (sweet homemade cottage cheese with pistachios) or gulab jamoon (cottage cheese balls fried and dipped in a sugar and rose water syrup).
As Baron Harkonnen said in Frank Herbert's Dune, "He who controls the spice controls the universe!" Taste of India Express has my vote.
Taste of India Express
117 E. Bijou
Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.