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Gateway to India

9520 Black Mountain Road, Mira Mesa

(No longer in business.)

Luckily, I missed the bus. I was running up the road, heading for the bus stop to catch the 31, when the danged thing hurtled by. Huh. I'm puffing right outside Little India, a collection of grocery shops, sari shops, meditation centers, and eateries. I mosey into a big white warehouse filled with wholesale and retail stuff from India. It's called Ker.

A vegetarian eatery fills a whole half of this warehouse. It's way past three in the afternoon, but hey, the chafing dishes are still out. Guess I'll ask someone if I can still eat.

I wait around for a bit, and then a lone girl appears at the warehouse checkout. "Lunch?" I ask, and she says. "Yes. It's $6.99." I pop through the divider door. The eatery has a couple dozen dishes of glistening golden, brown, green, and red food concoctions, yellow basmati rice, and sweets. Except, man...nobody's here. Just one gent in a red turban at the far end of the dining hall, watching a TV show.

What the heck. Don't know if I'm doing it right, but I pick up a metal tray with a circle of dents for holding the food and start loading up.

Each of the buffet dishes has a handprinted sign above it. Truly, I'm not sure what I'm picking, but I start with some basmati rice -- I recognize that -- and a couple of slices of naan, the bread. Then I pick out some aloo curry -- that's potato -- dhal, lentils, a dish of chholle (garbanzo beans), bengam bata eggplant, and heck, three or four more things.

I go to the drink table and pour water from a pitcher. Then I take it all to the great space beyond, filled with rows and rows of tables. The walls are painted in green, white, and orange in the shape of Moghul palace arches, with banners of giant sparkling scarves in green and blue, plus red and orange, plus salmon-colored curtains and posters of gods like -- who are they? Indra? Siva? Krishna? Ganesh?

I sit at a covered terrace in the back and dig in. The food? Like India itself. A collision of cultures and tastes. And the amazing thing is, they are all vegetables. Some smoky and roasted, others yogurty, others nutty. For a guy raised on spinach, this shows me what I've been missing. The vegetarian paneer tikka is rich and cottage-cheesy. The baingan ka burta is a delicious, smoky-tasting roasted eggplant dish, rich in the flavor of coriander leaves and sautéed onions and chilis and tomatoes. Then I'm into a pretty interesting garbanzo-bean mix called chholle.

"That is about the most popular food for everyday in India," says this guy passing by. I notice he has the metal wrist-bangle that tells you he's a Sikh. His name's Amarjit. Turns out he's the chief cook here. It's not his first place. He's been cooking in California for 20 years, including at the India Palace in La Jolla. "We're empty now," he says, "but come on a Friday or Saturday. It is packed with Indian families."

He points to my garbanzos. "Do you want to try a very popular recipe?" I nod. He disappears and returns with some deep-fried sticks. "Curried pakora," he says. "Garbanzo with flour and vegetables. Yogurt-based. People love these on the weekend."

Hmm. Nice. They kind of remind you of deep-fried crumbed zucchini.

Amarjit continues on down toward the TV set to join his friend. Heck, I finish up serving myself and join them, Amarjit and his friend in the turban, Jalwant Singh. He helps Amarjit in the kitchen. "Every Sikh's last name is 'Singh,'" says Jalwant. "It means 'lion,' or 'courageous like a lion.' We have often had to be courageous in defense of our religion."

Amarjit says the food they cook is mainly Punjabi, from the north, with a bit of Gujarat, also north, thrown in. "It takes time to understand our food," he says. "You should come back, often."

Uh-oh. All eyes on the TV. Two women confront each other over a lover and son. It's the final scene in an episode of Garkhi Lakshmi Vertiya -- "Rich Daughter's House," a regular soap on the Hindi Channel.

Now the ads start. "Problems at home? With money? With your love life? Call Pandit Maharaj, London." Panjit Maharaj promises to solve viewers' problems in seven days. Black-magic problems, a little longer.

"You should get some dessert," says Amarjit. "It's closing."

I just get back to the buffet as this lady, Sandra, is covering the dishes. "But go ahead," she says.

"Can you explain some of these to me?" I ask.

Sandra shakes her head. "I am from Guatemala."

So I grab whatever I can and find out what they are from Amarjit. Imitation oranges, penda (yellow balls of sugar and milk and cardamom), habshi halwa (delicious chunks of milk, sugar, cashews, pistachio, cardamom, and almonds), and, oh Lord, mangos, in syrup. Sweet, tropical mango. Not the tasteless cousins that grow here and in Mexico. I'd come back just for these.

But it's all worth coming back for. At $6.99, it's a deal, plus they let you have seconds. Next time, though, I'm going to bring Carla on a Saturday afternoon, when it's crowded.

Now, if I can just find the disappearing checkout girl to pay.

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