Lamb biryani with egg, almonds, raisins, and saffron rice
Despite being a repeat customer at plenty of all-you-can-eat Indian food buffets, I don’t yet feel as though I have eaten all I can. Though I have left most of them well satiated, from a full belly standpoint, when I think back on all the many flavors that made it to my buffet plate, it’s largely a blur. That’s because, the assortment of curries etc. start to taste the same. Like I know what the tikka masala will taste like, and the tandoori chicken.
1424 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, San Diego
Ocean Beach restaurant Sundara does not offer an all-you-can-eat special, but its dishes do stand out as distinct compared to many of the generic Indian restaurants we have scattered around the county. Some of that has to do with a willingness to create the occasional fusion dish: tikka masala pizza, for example. But to be honest, the restaurant does its best work sticking to Indian food canon.
Tikka masala pizza
Obviously, that means it’s tough to go wrong with staples such as samosas or naan. The dumplings come stiffed with either vegetables ($7) or lamb ($9), each served with chutney. The flatbread comes plain or with sesame seeds, with additional options including coated with cheese, dressed with garlic and cilantro, or a combination of all three ($3-5).
Saag paneer, a caramelized onion and spinach curry with cubed Indian cheese
Then there’s saag ($14), a curry of spinach and caramelized onion, served with option of vegetables or chicken mixed in, but ideally with the choice of the vagley cottage cheese-like paneer. At least, that’s how you’ll find it served most places, but here the sweet oil from the onion comes through a little more in contrast to the earthiness of the spinach, allowing the small cubes of paneer to center the dish both texturally and in terms of taste.
A small Indian kitchen in Ocean Beach
My favorite has been the lamb biryani ($18), a salty combination rice that makes beautiful use of aromatic spices to complement the gamey aromatics of minced lamb running throughout. The recipe is aided by hits of saffron rice, slivered almonds, slices of hard boiled egg, and the occasional sweet bites of golden raisins. That's a lot of stuff i don't typically expect to find on one plate, but it's sure easy to eat.
Garlic and cilantro naan, a soft flatbread with a little bit of char
Given current dining restrictions, it’s helpful to point out that Sundara’s online ordering system works quite well: I walked into the restaurant, picked a bag with my name on it off a front table, and walked out. I do believe the less than ten minutes total I spend in OB is a personal best.
But the greater point is, there’s more to Indian cooking than throwing spice blends into a pot, and visiting Sundara forces me to realize I need to continue to skip the buffets, even after the pandemic has passed, and redouble my focus on Indian restaurants that bring a little character to their dishes. They won’t always leave me feeling satisfied, but if experience teaches me anything, it’s that I’ll always have an appetite for more.