At endlessly boring dinner parties for adults, I rapidly learned to nip into the kitchen and see what was really going on. While the adults supped on properly pale and bland foods, my brother and I would befriend whoever was cooking and get to taste the real supper, the one cooking in the back for all the servants and hired help: sizzling papadum or fish broiled with coconut milk and pumpkin leaves. These were tastes that were superb, not just for the fact that they were illicit, but because they involved so many of the senses.
My favorite shop was just down the street from my school, a tiny, creaky store that sold trays of fresh samosa, chervil, bageea, curries and pastries. At week's end when I collected my shilling for being a smart little soldier, I rarely pocketed it like my frugal brother. No, I headed straight for the samosa shop. I never ceased to marvel that so many flavors and textures could be tucked into such a seemingly innocent pastry. And they never lasted very long: the savory spicy filling, the crisp rich pastry, and suddenly, nothing but oily fingers. To console myself, I always bought two Bazooka Joes and proceeded to rot my teeth. Some tendencies start early and can never quite be rooted out.
So it is with samosa. I love samosa, and am always on the lookout for the right place to land my fix. And so, on a recent day of cravings, I visited India Oven. Located on Campbell, India Oven appears to be a vestige of the bygone days when Campbell and Grant was considered the far-flung boundary of northern Tucson. Town has long since rushed ahead and up into the foothills, and just the dust has settled down over India Oven.
Walk inside and you'll find a left-behind version of Tucson as well. I found myself equally mesmerized and appalled by the interior. Perhaps it was the violent turquoise decor, the faux dark wood paneling or the seediness of the tables. I always feel immediately challenged when entering a venue like this. The challenge is to embrace it for its character or get the hell out.
The hostess breezed by us, then turned and pointed toward a table. It seemed wise to sit, and we did. Some a bit more reluctantly than others. But our reservations melted away when we saw they had samosa.
Naturally, we started with the samosa ($2.25), shrimp pakora ($5.50), vegetable pakora ($2.25) and an order of papadum ($1). Perhaps we should have known better than to order so many fried foods at once, but we'd already thrown caution to the wind. The samosa was just so-so, nothing to ignite the power of memory nor to offend. The filling was fairly innocuous, and the shell overly crisped. The pakora, both shrimp and vegetable, were acceptable. The papadum had puffed up crisp and light.
Our palates teased into hunger, we proceeded to order dinner. The tandoori chicken ($10.95) was turned out in ample portion. Though we had ordered a whole chicken, the entire platter was composed of thigh and leg. Still, the chicken sported the characteristic ruddy red, and although a bit dry, held smoky, aromatic flavors. Served with onion and an order of garlic naan ($2.35), this plate rapidly disappeared.
It was at this point that something other than water would have been a welcome addition to our meal. Our server, occupied and chatting with other tables, didn't seem overly concerned with our needing or wanting anything more. This became an irritating theme throughout the meal. It was hard to discern if this was because we weren't regulars or if, in fact, it was simply indifference. In either event, we eventually gave up rattling ice cubes and watched, amazed and bewildered at this tough-love approach to serving food.
For the vegetarians, the saag paneer ($5.50) was a hopeful selection. Although this can be a delightful dish, here the spinach had been strained so it resembled more of a slurry. The flavor was creamy and comforting, but the brownish cast to the dish wasn't very visually appealing.
Aloo channa, potatoes and garbanzo beans cooked in what appeared to be a light curry ($5.50), was actually a hearty and warming dish. Be sure to place an order for extra naan or rice, depending on your dining party's whim, since this is dense in flavor and texture.
The shrimp biryani ($10.95) was a zippy mixture of basmati rice peppered with raisins and a few shrimp. The shrimp were definitely a sparse addition to the mix. The warm and slightly spicy flavors made this more of a satisfying rice dish than an entrée.
To me, some of the great joys found in Indian cooking come from the small and fiery complex flavors. We found we needed to order liberally from the available side dishes to amend what we'd been served. We welcomed the addition of raita, some fresh yogurt, mango pickle, and mango chutney.
Although we were not asked, we did request dessert. I've never been overly fond of Indian desserts. This might have something to do with a wedding I attended where I bolted down way too many gluey orangish sweets and ralphed in the bushes. To me, Indian desserts fall into the category of sweet then sweeter. Despite my better judgment, we ordered the gulab jaman ($1.99) and mango kulfee (mango-flavored Indian style ice cream, $2.35).
I'm sure for some palates these desserts inspire fond memories, but for me they did not. The gulab jaman, oddly porous dough balls afloat in a pool of sugar syrup, didn't really delight. And the mango kulfee, a cold, creamy type of ice cream, tasted slightly sour.
All told, our meal was a passable one. There are some newer (and superior) additions to Tucson's repertoire of Indian restaurants in town, but there is a peculiar element to India Oven that makes it compelling. Perhaps it is the clear indifference that the rest of the world has charged on by, or perhaps it is the unapologetic and odd sense that this venue is at peace with what it serves and the fashion in which it serves it. In any event, it provides a gaze into a slightly different world. Now, if only they sold Bazooka Joe...