There’s a reason Indian restaurants are so popular in the Western world. The spices, the sauces, the robust cooking and the beautiful complexity of flavors are at once exotic, mysterious, welcoming and accessible.
It’s one of my favorite cuisines. For many years I have pursued – and mostly enjoyed – Indian food throughout much of North America.
If you like good ol’ meat and potatoes or barbecue, you’re a candidate for embracing Indian fare, which does this kind of thing with gusto and wonderment. You’ll definitely become familiar with the “C” spices – coriander, cardamom, cumin, cloves, cayenne, chili powder – along with ginger, fennel, saffron and more. If you’re a vegetarian, you’re in good company with Indian food, and its meaningful deployment of ingredients such as chickpeas, lentils, okra, eggplant, cauliflower and spinach.
And if you’re a fan of chowing down, there’s nothing quite like an Indian lunchtime buffet to leave you happy and full. In fact, if you hear snoring in an office cubicle on any given afternoon, there’s a good chance an Indian buffet and chicken tikka masala are to blame.
In the Sacramento region, I hear plenty of talk about which Indian restaurant is best. But that answer is far from unanimous. There are so many variables and so much depends on the talent and devotion in the kitchen. Things change. Chefs come and go. The energy ebbs, flows and sometimes peters out. I’ve seen quality and consistency go up and down. The former Monsoon on 16th Street is a perfect example. At first it was terrible. Then it was very good. Then it was gone.
But one thing seems certain at this juncture: If South Asian food whets your appetite, you need to give Pooja Indian Grill in West Sacramento a whirl. If you haven’t heard of it, put it on your radar. If you’ve never been, now is your chance. And if you have yet to try Indian food, what are you waiting for?
The meat is tender. The rice is light and fluffy with a perfect chew. The flat pieces of naan bread, cooked quickly at very high heat, are often beautiful, with the charring and puffing that may remind you of Neapolitan pizza crust. The curry dishes are just terrific.
The tandoori chicken was perhaps the most pleasant surprise. The moderately spicy version Pooja serves at the lunchtime buffet is a very good if relatively tame. But one night I asked for it hot, and it was simply tremendous. The spices were lively, the chicken juicy, and the overall experience like sparks bouncing around the palate.
Then there’s the soothing experience of one of Pooja’s most delightful dishes – the chicken tikka masala. Sure, it might be a little mainstream for serious foodies, but it’s just so easy to love. Chicken cubes are marinated in yogurt and spices and then cooked in a cylindrical clay tandoori oven, or tandoor. The chicken is usually baked on skewers, and when served with the soothing and spicy masala sauce, it amounts to an emotional eating experience; complex in flavor with a creamy, luxurious mouthfeel.
Like many of the curry dishes, the best way to eat this silky chicken is to use the naan as an extension of your hand. Grab or scoop the masala with the rice and enjoy. This is a rich but balanced dish; it comforts but doesn’t overwhelm.
At Pooja, the customer is given the option to order a dish a la carte or as an entree that includes choice of naan (white) or roti (whole wheat), daal (lentil soup), raita (yogurt and cucumber meant for dipping) and a small dessert. If you’re going to order multiple dishes and share them at the table, you’ll want to go a la carte.
During one of three recent visits, I dined with a friend who grew up in Northern India and is a longtime vegetarian. Pooja’s food reflects cuisine from the north, and the menu was immediately familiar and inviting to her. She ordered a popular dish called malai kofta and was thrilled with the quality of the preparation. Malai kofta uses paneer – a mild white cheese – and vegetables as the foundation for expressive, deep-fried dumplings with prominent flavor notes of coriander and cumin. Served in a thick tomato-based sauce, this dish was a big hit at our table and is highly recommended.
Another friend who loves Indian food uses samosas to gauge the skill in the kitchen. Eaten as appetizers, samosas are usually a cone-shaped, deep-fried-pastry turnovers filled with ground lamb or potatoes and peas with cumin, ginger, coriander, red chilies and more. Lack of attention at some Indian restaurants will lead to a samosa with a thick and tough pastry shell. But both versions (meat and vegetarian) of the samosa at Pooja were superb – crisp but with thin-walled dough holding superbly seasoned fillings.
To make the samosas even more exciting, get the chole option – with spicy chickpeas smothering the samosas. Delicious and hearty.
We sampled across the large menu, but the most memorable for me was the tandoori chicken I mentioned earlier. To the uninitiated eater, this style of chicken has an eye-catching pink hue, the result of a marinade and seasonings that include cayenne pepper and red chili powder. It’s normally a rather tame and eminently easy dish to like. But then I ordered it hot. I have eaten this chicken dozens of times over the years, and I don’t recall having done that before. Turns out, tandoori chicken tends to be spicier in India and Pakistan but toned down, if not muted, in the United States. But this time – wow! Yes, it was hot, but not tongue-searing. The seasonings were vibrant and vivid, and the chicken cooked so perfectly, that it added up to some of the best I’ve ever eaten.
A few thoughts about the lunchtime buffet ($9.99). Whereas dinner service can be calm, and the dining room is occasionally more than half empty, the busy lunch scene is a full-on exercise in eating well and eating plenty. This may or may not be your thing. The quality of the food takes a bit of a hit when it sits in hot plates, of course, but there are enough food options to satisfy most fans of Indian cuisine. Just don’t expect the customized ordering and cooking precision you will get with dinner.
Pooja is a very good restaurant, but still has room for improvement. While the setting is pleasant enough – with booths at the perimeter of the large dining room and tables in middle – the look and feel of the décor is a tad tired, if not clichéd. But the most obvious area for upgrade is with the service. It can be abrupt and impersonal. On one occasion, in a dining room two-thirds empty, the first words we heard from our server were: “Are you ready to order?” Another time, a different server got our order wrong and didn’t take pains to correct it. A more engaging style of service will underscore the quality of the cooking and elevate the experience.
For now, Pooja may just be doing some of the best Indian food around. Several of the dishes are outstanding and many others are exceptional. It is a place where you can get so lost in the flavors and aromas and wonderment that you tend to overlook the little glitches with the front-of-the-house staff.
Pooja Indian Grill
1223 Merkley Ave.
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and noon to 2:30 p.m. Saturday; dinner: 5-8:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Beverage options: Small selection of beer and wine
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes, but not necessarily indicated
Noise level: Quiet to moderate
Ambiance: A large bright dining room with booths around the perimeter and tables in the middle
Overall * * * 1/2
With the quality of the cooking at a consistently high level, Pooja wows us with its food, which is so good that we tend to forgive occasional glitches with service. At the moment, this may be the best Indian food in the Sacramento region.
Food * * * 1/2
Recommended dishes include chicken tikka masala, a cheese and vegetable dumpling-style dish called malai kofta, the tandoori chicken and the samosa, both the ground lamb and vegetable versions. The cooking for these and many other dishes on the large menu is precise, assertive and exciting. The lunchtime buffet is a superb deal, even if the food quality is compromised.
Service * 1/2
This is really the only shortcoming. In order for Pooja to be a truly great restaurant, the service should be at the same level as the cooking. For starters, it needs to be much more engaging.
Value * * * 1/2
Indian food is generally very affordable. Given the quality of the cooking and the ingredients used, the prices are appealing. Many dishes are in the $10 to $15 range and the portions are ample.