Given a healthy appreciation for good puns, South Asian cuisine, and proximity, I was more than curious when Indian restaurant Curryosity opened close to home in South Park last fall. It gave a good look to an intermittently vacant restaurant space that needed it. The dark storefront received a bright white paint job, with saturated splashes of pink and gold and a sign that declared Curryosity would be, “spicing up the neighborhood.”
3023 Juniper St, South Park
Visions of Indian takeout danced through my head, of fresh naan and lots of aromatic leftovers rotating through my refrigerator. Then I saw the vibrant interior, elegantly furnished, with colorful artwork and stained glass pendant lamps, and realized the space offered a sort of dine-in experience the entire east side of Balboa Park has been craving. A large, open window counter and patio dining open the bar area to the sidewalk along Juniper Street, effectively settling the matter: it looks every bit a boon to the community.
All that was left was to start ordering food. I didn’t expect it to be groundbreaking. I actually had a few ideas how it might go. But those ideas were dashed early on. With each first bite of a traditional Indian dish I’d eaten a couple dozen times elsewhere, I found myself thinking, “Well, this is different.”
I have to applaud the distinction. Truth is, I’ve encountered too much homogeny among dishes at Indian restaurants in San Diego and elsewhere, that suggest prevalent use of common spice blends or curry pastes. Many different places and times, I’ve had the same tikka masala, the same tandoori rub, the same chickpea batter seasoning in a litany of fried vegetable pakoras. However, despite the sameness, these ubiquitous spice profiles happen to be pretty darn satisfying. In a warm, viscous sauce, their densely packed flavors hit every corner of your palate, and consume your senses in a way few global cuisines can match.
The unfortunate side effect is that, when I do encounter original, house-made spice blends, as I’ve found at Curryosity, the first impulse is to judge them against that common denominator. It’s tough and maybe a unfair to make a judgment about quality when you’re pitting new against the comfort of the familiar. Give bratwurst to kid who’s only ever eaten ballpark hot dogs, and that kid’s probably going to insist the hot dog tastes better, because it’s what he or she knows and expects. Never mind that a bratwurst is objectively better than a frankfurter, QED.
So I adjusted my expectations and started looking at Currosity as a different sort of place. One willing to push boundaries, buck tradition, and broaden our understanding of a cuisine. There’s a playfulness to it, evidenced by curried macaroni and cheese, and latkes topped with tamarind chutney. However, I keep coming back to the traditional entrees and finding reasons to like them less, not more, than off-the-shelf alternatives. A bitter bite to the $13 stewed spinach saag paneer. An unshakably acridity bringing down a slightly over-baked clay oven tandoori chicken ($15). While the coconut-based Nirvana curry ($13 with tofu) was near perfectly executed, it’s perhaps more telling that the masala in my skimpy $7 curry mac was out-seasoned by the black pepper, sea salt, and whole cumin seeds in the papadom crackers served alongside it.
Six months on, I’m starting to wonder whether I’ve given Curryosity too much credit for drawing me out of the Indian spice bubble. I might still cruise past and appreciate its vibrancy, but owing to routine inconsistencies among its entrees, only my curiosity has been satisfied.