In the 10+ years I’ve worked in the foodservice industry, I’ve experienced the pain, and privilege, of serving a range of cuisines at varied price points. I’ve worked at a high-end steak and seafood house, with tired recipes and an average of $25/plate. I’ve served buy-in Italian food, with Alfredo sauce wrapped in plastic pillowcases, reheated and sold at a 500% markup. In my highs and lows working as a server, I’ve been most honored to serve authentic Thai food, sourcing local proteins and vegetables, breaking even at $8-10/plate. With such affordable pricing, I was earning far less, but it provided me with something far more valuable – pride in the food. I didn’t have to steer customers away from well-reading, poorly conceptualized dishes. Everything was fantastic, and there was nothing to hide.
This, too, is the pride of Pawandeep, the 24-year-old daughter of Santokh Singh Khinda, who opened All India Café in Pasadena with wife Parminder in 1994. Both contributed to creating the menu from classic recipes, building their own bases - a painstaking process many other Indian restaurants tend to shortcut. It’s a labor of love and integrity, which makes for a truly different serving experience - offering food with full faith in its consistency and ingenuity. Pawandeep joined us as we enjoyed some of her favorite dishes; pride-points of the restaurant that, despite its unassuming storefront and humble interiors, has been voted “Best Indian Restaurant” in Pasadena Weekly for the past 15 years.
Despite my courageous cooking adventures, Indian is the one cuisine I’ve always shied from even attempting. The library of spices that make up the unrivaled flavor profiles demands a dedicated culinary collector. As an American who’s only briefly set foot out of the country, my perspective of Indian food is limited. And if you were to ask me, years ago, what the mark of a terrific Indian restaurant is, I’d have answered, “Chicken Tikka Masala, of course.” This seems to be a dish with the most puzzling variance in flavor, texture, and creaminess between Indian restaurants.
What I didn’t know, until a couple years ago, is that this dish was first created as a fluke; an improvised modification of a curry sent back to the kitchen a British bus driver in Glasgow, Scotland. Folding in the addition of yogurt and tomato sauce saw the birth of what would later be declared the “National Dish of Great Britain.” But what makes this Indian “classic” so amazing? As with most Indian dishes, it’s the base. All India Café starts with rough-chopped and simmered tomatoes, giving a beautiful body to the dish, and a creamy hue, not exaggerated by artificial food colorings. The result is a rich sauce with velvety texture – a structure reminiscent of a fresh vodka sauce, which of course could never strive to carry such depth of flavor. Simply put, it’s the best I’ve found in the city.
While some would argue Masala is the true test of the Indian restaurant, I would argue it’s the Naan. The best I’d had is in my Upstate NY hometown, well out of range, and I’ve tried over a dozen renditions of the tandoori baked bread in Los Angeles, with none holding a candle. All India has passed the test. I appreciate Pawandeep’s decision to offer us the “Garlic Naan”, which has consistently disappointed in my exhaustive search across the county for one that actually has the courage to add fresh garlic, not fried, or waived for the simple decoy of chopped parsley. They not only deliver on the garlic, but the texture of the Naan - light, flexible yet firm (some want a platform for their curries, where others prefer the fold-into-sandwich form). It’s so tender that it tastes but a couple minutes past “gummy”. For me, this should be the “textbook”.
Pawandeep, who is vegetarian, also treats us to classic appetizers of vegetable samosas, and onion Pakora (the latter of which, battered cleverly in lentil flour, is also gluten-free). Samosas are another personal favorite - crisp pockets of delicious waxy white potatoes and peas. Like a snowflake, I haven’t found an Indian restaurant that executes uniform design of the popular, portable street food. Theirs is ranked among my favorites – sleek cone shells that offer a crunchy, textural backboard to the almost creamy potato filling. Unfortunately, there is not enough of either appetizer in a single order to do justice to the several brilliant chutneys offered (it’s here I experienced my first “plum chutney”, which is mind-blowing).
All India Café, a charmingly accessible atmosphere for dine-ins, also offers free delivery within a 3-mile radius. Indian has always been one of my favorite delivery options, as a few entrees can carry me through several meals over a couple of days. I made sure to walk with a couple of items to see how it travels. Rather well, as it was received by my sweetheart (and editor). I would be in trouble if I didn’t let her sample their Masala, her go-to favorite.
So what does it say when her attention is stolen by the perfectly tender Chicken Tikka, baked in its marinade, served typically naked on a bed of caramelized white onions? I’m perplexed. Ah, she’s just lost in the sauce, running the tender pieces through the slightly spicy, perfectly pureed mint chutney. I’m lucky she doesn’t notice as I pop the pickled carrots and cauliflower, which mean to provide a zippy balance to the Tikka’s savory seasoning, but are delightful all on their own. Should I tell her she’s eating thigh meat, a dark cut she typically avoids? Maybe, after I make this Masala disappear.
All India Cafe is located at 39 S Fair Oaks Ave, Pasadena, CA 91105