1041 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
What’s with this “Urban” thing? There’s “Urbn,” the bar-eatery in North Park, “Urban Eats” on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest, and now “Urban India,” near the Gaslamp.
I noticed it walking down Fourth toward Broadway the other night. Place used to be Joey’s BBQ.
Have to go in, just to see what “Urban India” means. Inside, it’s big, orangey, woody, bricky, filled with Indian art, Buddha heads, and big-screen TVs showing sports.
But it’s still a truly Indian place — the main screens are showing cricket.
Someone has posted the rules of the game on nearby columns. Have to read this, before I sit down. Oh, man. In cricket they have two batters on at the same time? And different pitchers who “bowl” the ball from different places? If you’re the batter and the ball hits your leg, it’s not just “Ouch!,” it’s probably “Out!” too.
“Would you like to eat?” asks this tall waiter, Amrish. He sits me down at the edge of a long bench seat, where half a dozen tables lead toward a counter in the back, and hands me a menu.
I see that each day from 11:00 to 3:00 they have a $9.99 buffet. There are all the usual Indian dishes, like chicken tikka (chicken cooked in a tandoori oven), tikka masala (chicken chunks in a creamy-orange tomato/paprika/turmeric sauce), and saag — (spicy creamed spinach). A soda is included in the price.
Trouble is, this is standard dinnertime, around 8:00 p.m. Meat entrées come in at $13–$15, with different curries built around chicken, lamb, shrimp, fish, or goat. A huge list of vegetarian entrées are offered for $9–$13.
So: appetizers. I end up ordering two samosas ($3.99) and a plate of paneer (“cheese”) pakora (“fried”) — Indian-style cheese chunks with green chutney stuffed in between, all battered and fried ($3.99). They come with a delish poppadom (crisp, thin rolled bread). And tamarind (red) chutney and a green mint chutney. You need these chutneys because the potato and pea samosas and the paneer are, well, kinda taste-neutral.
But they go great with the pint of draft Kingfisher (“India’s #1 lager,” $4), and I munch them down in 15 minutes flat. Meanwhile, I stare at the TV, trying to figure out this crazy cricket deal.
Cut to the following Friday, around 6:00 p.m. I’m walking the same route, down Fourth, toward the bus stop on Third and Broadway.
A cry: “This way, this way!”
It’s a big guy waving an arrow board at the corner of Fourth and Broadway. “Coolest Indian place downtown! Cheapest, too. Happy hour, two-dollar beers! Right now!”
Name’s Matthew. The arrow he’s waving says, “Urban India.” It’s the same place. But two-buck beers? That’s something new. I head in, but this time weave left, aimed at a long bar I’d noticed last time but hadn’t investigated.
An oversized Buddha head smiles next to one of seven flat screens. This evening it’s showing basketball, not cricket.
“Welcome to the Buddha Bar,” says a guy in a black turban. Jappreet Singh. The manager.
He swings a happy-hour menu in front of me. Now we’re talkin’. Samosas are $2, tandoori chicken’s $5, and chicken tikka, served on a sizzling iron skillet, is $6. There’s a handful of vegetarian appetizers, too: gobi Manchurian (cauliflower) runs to $5, veg pakora (fried veggies) is $3, and onion bhaji (also fried) is $3.
Plus: as Matthew promised, draft beers are $2. And not just Bud: pints of Stone IPA, Sam Adams, Ballast Point Pale Ale, and that Kingfisher lager. Two buckeroos.
“What can I get you?” Jappreet asks.
I go for the onion bhaji and the chicken tikka. And a glass of Stone IPA — whoever heard of a $2 Stone IPA?
Onion bhaji comes first. It’s good, basically fried onion rings made sexier by mint and tamarind chutneys.
But the winner is the chicken tikka. No contest. Surinder the chef (and Jappreet’s business partner) brings it sizzlin’, cracklin’, and smokin’ out from the kitchen on a black iron platter. It’s red chunks of chicken, onions, cucumber slices, green peppers, and lemons, appearing through a smoke that smells of…herbs? Garlic, for sure.
“This dish is our bread and butter,” Surinder says. “Everybody asks for it.”
“We are Sikh,” says Jappreet. “We’re young, part of the new India. There’s still the traditional life back there, but I tell you, man, urban India, in places like Mumbai — Bombay — is going Vadoosh! You’d say ‘Kaboom!’ It’s our generation. We’re changing everything. We’re chill. So we wanted a different vibe in here. We’re into fusion. We want this to be a sports bar, a place where everyone feels comfortable. I mean, come on: When have you seen an Indian sports bar?”
Don’t Sikh rules ban alcohol and meat? “It is tolerant,” says Surinder. “It is okay to participate in the world. What is essential is to believe in God and be good to our fellow man. We try to do that.”
I ask Jappreet about his turban.
“It takes me about 13 minutes to wrap each morning,” he says. “We never cut our hair, so I must tie it up. My beard also.”
It turns out that wearing a turban has been an act of courage for Sikhs over the centuries. It makes you an easy mark for your enemies.
Surinder is 25, Jappreet is 30. He says Urban India’s first three months have been incredibly good. “God has been kind.”
I end up getting a couple of small takeouts for Carla. She loves this stuff. The chicken tikka masala — that dreamy, creamy orange dish — and the saag, puréed spinach and herbs, which is hot and totally scrumbo. Plus some rice. They charge me $9.99.
I’m hooked. Two-buck booze and smokin’ chicken tikka: if this is the start of the Indian Invasion, call me an early casualty. ■
The Place: Urban India, 1041 Fourth Avenue, downtown, 619-238-8380
Happy-Hour Prices: samosas, $2; tandoori chicken, $5; chicken tikka (on sizzling dish), $6; gobi Manchurian (cauliflower), $5; veg pakora, $3; onion bhaji, $3. Draft beers, $2
Kitchen Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. daily; buffet, 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m. daily; happy hour, 3:00–7:00 p.m. daily
Buses: all downtown
Nearest bus stops: Fourth and Broadway (westbound), Fifth and Broadway (eastbound)