With the surge in eclectic American eateries in North County serving their spin on traditional favorites, it’s nice to revisit an old-school restaurant dedicated to one cuisine. Tucked in between trendy Craftsman New American Tavern and Firefly Grill & Wine Bar, plus another half dozen restaurants in this Encinitas shopping center is Passage to India.I will admit that I am a novice when it comes to Indian food.To this point, my most extensive exposure has been in England and Ireland where I indulged in late night curry with my son Quinn after a night on the town. At the time, it was a wonderful new option to quell an alcohol-fueled hunger.
Recently, I decided it was time to become more familiar with this diverse cuisine. Luckily, I had just met a new friend named Panna who is from Gujarat in the Western part of India, which is where Gandhi hails from and happens to be the only dry state in the country which discourages many tourists from visiting.
We dined together the day after most of India experienced a massive power outage. I had also just seen the movie “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which really captured the essence of urban living in India, so yes, India was top of mind.
Panna suggested we try Passage to India as my introduction to the cuisine and where I could sample a variety of dishes. It was also a place she found acceptable, which was good to know.
She started with a brief overview of this diverse, colorful and tasteful food that comes from 28 states with 21 official languages.
Indians take their cooking and food very seriously. It is not just “curry, spice and oil” as she put it. The common staples are wheat, rice, millets, corn, lentils along with milk and milk products like yogurt.
Spices include red or green chilies, mustard seeds, cumin, dry coriander seeds, fennel, star anise saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, and many others.
Each vegetable or meat curried or not is cooked with a different spice powder, which is combination of some of the spices in different proportions. This way each vegetable or meat dish has different taste and aroma. The oils are peanut oil, sunflower oil, ghee, butter and recent introduction is olive oil. All the foods are eaten by placing them on a plate where you mix and match the way you like. It is typically referred to as Thali — a selection of various dishes.
So that’s the way we approached our meal.
First to come out was a non-vegetarian assorted snack as they called it.
It included lamb samosa, fish pakoras, chicken pakoras and papadum. The samosa reminded me of a mini pasty, the Cornish meat pie. It’s a stuffed snack consisting of a fried or baked pastry shell with a savory filling, which may include spiced potatoes, onions, peas, coriander, and lentils, or ground lamb or chicken.
Papadum is a thin, crisp Indian cracker served as an accompaniment to a meal similar to a tortilla in Mexican restaurants. Raita is an essential part of the Indian meal as well. It’s yogurt with cucumber and potatoes and is perfect to dip just about everything in. Mixed pickles with lemons, mangos, lotus and ginger roots were not your typical pickles and they packed a punch.
Next up was the Chicken Vindaloo, which is a boneless chicken prepared with potatoes in hot, spicy gravy. Most versions outside of India have the chicken marinated in vinegar, sugar, fresh ginger and spices overnight.
The combination is delicious and makes a perfect dipping sauce for other dishes on the table as well. According to Panna, dipping in multiple sauces is part of the experience and I can see why.
Of course I had to try a beer brewed in India and they tend to be crisp, refreshing lagers that are perfect with the many flavors happening on the table.
We did not have room for dessert but I’ve been told the rice-pudding-like Kheer is the way to go.
The décor at Passage to India is very ornate and traditional. I had a thought that it might be cool to combine traditional Indian cuisine in a contemporary space with a “Bollywood” soundtrack. You heard it here first.
Check out their hours, location and menu at passagetoindia1sd.com.