I’ve gotta be honest about something: I loves me some Indian buffet. You know, the all-you-can eat variety that you can score for about 6 to 8 bucks. Heaps of basmati rice. Tandoori chicken from here to Idyllwild. Lentils like there’s no tomorrow. Oh, and the naan bread—don’t even get me started.
Yes, the culinary treasures of the Indian subcontinent rate very high on my internal Zagat. Which brings me to New India Sweets & Spices in Riverside, a place which I’d visited a number of occasions, but only to purchase a bag of samosas (for the uninitiated, a fried pastry filled with potatoes, peas, onions and other goodies) destined to be noshed at home base. I never did the sit-down thing inside what is officially a grocery store specializing in Indo-Pak, British and Sri Lankan goodies, located in what has got to be the city’s most nondescript, monochromatic shopping center.
However, if you walk past New India’s more-than-plentiful audio-video selection (if you’re looking for Bollywood stuff, your quest has ended here, my friend), and look past the stacks of shiny plastic boxes containing tamarind candies, and stroll past the aisles smelling of coriander and cumin, you’ll notice a few cafeteria-style tables and benches towards the back of the store. Nothing fancy. Just like the menu. You get three lunch choices, each with an increasing amount of food. We opt for Lunch No. 3, which comes with two “entrees” and all the fixings.
And despite the fact that this place is far from white tablecloth—your meal is served, I kid you not, on a white Styrofoam tray—and their food selection is pretty simple, the dining experience here actually works. Major, major props go to New India’s yellow curry, one of the items that’s been ladled on to our trays. The savory spice factor hits you in the back of the throat if you’re not careful and the flavorful sauce is a delight to greedily spoon in our pie holes. Our guess is that the lunch offerings here were from the vegetarian side of the fence since there doesn’t appear to be any meat in any of the items. Not a problem though. Soaking up the aforementioned curry sauce are chunks of pakoras, which are fried balls of vegetables, such as cauliflower, potato and the like. The other lunch entrée is eggplant in a rich, hearty sauce, studded with peas and onions.
There’s always trouble in paradise, and this meal is no stranger to some quibbles. The naan bread is alright, but I can’t help but speculate that it’s somehow related to the packages of frozen naan and roti breads that I see stacked inside the freezer section adjacent to the dining area. It’s just lacking that fresh-from-the-tandoori-oven appeal. The rice, too, is also, so-so. Not bad, just not awesome. There’s also a spicy, tamarind-like item on the tray that my lunch partner and I can’t identity but sample and decide that, yes, this is hot and we move on. As a contrast to the heavy, sauciness, a small quantity of crisp, sliced cucumbers tempts us as an after-lunch respite. And the gulab jamun, a sweet dough ball in syrup, for dessert is simply a keeper.
This place also works with your budget: Lunch for two plus two soft drinks went for the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding price of $13 and some loose change. And no tip as you’ve served yourself, natch.
Now, New India is not going to replace my usual buffet face-stuffing, but it’s certainly proven a capable second fiddle for when I want a no-frills, quick-and-dirty version of the next best thing. You might even enjoy the Bollywood music.
New India Sweets & Spices, 1320 Blaine St. #A, Riverside, (951) 781-0560. 11AM-9PM every day. AE, D, MC, V.