By Maane Khatchatourian
Staff Writer

The Taj Café

905 State St.
Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 564-8280
Monday through Thursday: 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Friday through Sunday: 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

As I stepped foot into the Taj Café, I was automatically transported to a different world. The traditional Indian music, portrait paintings and elephant figurines added to the ambiance of the exotic setting. Nestled in a cozy booth behind curtains with embroidered figures in golden needle-work, beneath dim lighting, across from a backdrop of the Taj Mahal, one can easily forget their whereabouts were it not for the English translations on the menu that is.

If not for its authentic appeal, the smell of the food alone is enough to attract passersby. The large selection of food items includes aloo tikki, a delectable potato pancake, tandoori chicken, slowly cooked in a traditional oven, lamb Frankie, an egg-washed Bombay style burrito, black tiger shrimp curry, saag aloo, pureed spinach leaves with potatoes, combination platters and lunch specials. Those overwhelmed by the plethora of options can sample these items during the daily all-you-can-eat lunch buffet that offers more than 21 items, which are continuously changed.

According to manager and part-owner Fatbir Khinda, the Taj Café’s traditional village-style cooking and specialties like coconut chicken curry and garlic chicken is what has attracted the restaurant’s loyal customers to the humble, family-owned restaurant since 2002.

“We are the first Indian restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara,” Khinda said. “A lot of people like our foods. They keep on coming.”

Adding to the restaurant’s credibility is the chef’s 25 years of cooking experience.

The “home-made” food is also seasoned to perfection, creating a medley of tastes in the mouth. Khinda said locals and students alike are astonished
at the array of spices that are used in each dish.

“We use all natural ingredients in the food,” Khinda said. “Everything is made from scratch. Our recipes are real recipes from villages in India.”

Restaurant-goers can also spice up their mundane days by visiting the café’s second location in Ventura.

All India Café

431 State St.
Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 882-1000
Monday through Thursday: 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

What this eatery may lack in flashiness, it certainly makes up for in authenticity. The All India Café makes its own cheese, yogurt, drinks and sauces. With the exception of the colorful fabric that is draped against a wall and statues of Hindu gods and paintings which resemble pages of an illuminated manuscript, none of the simple décor took attention away from the physicality of the café. The focus was put on the more important aspect of the food.

Unlike most restaurants which force customers to choose between eating from the buffet and ordering from the menu, the All India Café gives patrons a choice in the matter. Those who are unfamiliar with Indian food can sample the buffet entrees, which include kheer, rice pudding, gulab jamun, milk ball, chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, chicken and mutton curry and pullao rice. Pickier eaters can choose directly from the menu, which includes dishes such as samosas, a vegetarian turnover which is one of the most popular snacks in India, to chicken makhani, marinated tandoor chicken with saffron rice.

The restaurant even serves 10 different types of naan, leavened bread, including some with chicken, cheese, fruits, nuts, raisins, garlic and 10 to 15 vegan dishes.

Store manager Rajesh Tehlan said the affordable lunch buffet under $10 — served daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. — is meant to familiarize customers with the restaurant’s food.

“We introduce them to the buffet first so they can know what they like. … [Then] when he comes in for dinner, he’ll know what to order.”

According to Tehlan, each of the spices used in the food has its own medicinal property. Tehlan said turmeric can heal lung problems and enhance memory, ginger helps with digestion, garlic reduces cholesterol and asafetida powder improves the immune system and is used as H1N1 medicine. Aside from the herbal benefits, he also said that the food itself is cooked in a healthy manner.

We cook [the food] in a home manner,” Tehlan said. “It’s not too spicy, not too oily. You can eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can’t have burgers or pizza three times a day.”

In fact, Tehlan said the food is so healthy that small children and pregnant women are encouraged to eat it. Children under the age of six even eat for free. With 15 years of experience, All India Café caters to people of all ages and walks of life.

Flavor of India

3026 State St.
Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 682-6561
Lunch: Mon. through Saturday: 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Thursday: 5:30 to 10:00 p.m.
Friday through Saturday: 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Closed on Sunday

Dining at Flavor of India felt like eating a meal at home with family. The Indian instrumental music, curtain doilies, pots, vases and animal figurines created a homey atmosphere.

I later found out that my first impression was justified, for the cozy restaurant is family owned and operated. The owner and chef Puran Joshan opened the locale in 1991 and hired his children — Raj Joshan and Kuldeep Kaur — to manage the business. Kaur also boasts that Flavor of India offers Indian style home-cooked family meals.

The menu, which includes over seven tandoori item — food cooked in a traditional Indian oven — almost 20 curries and combination dinners, offers appetizing vegetarian entrees. According to Kaur, Indian is the best type of food for vegetarians.

Despite its plethora of vegetarian and vegan friendly dishes, Kaur said chicken tikka masala, — a type of tandoori chicken curry, — is the most popular menu and buffet item.

“The taste and spices are so unique that people love it,” Kaur said. “There are so many people that are stuck on that. They want to try something different each time, but can’t.”

Kaur also said their lunch buffet is convenient and necessary in this fast-paced nation. She said it is especially favored by students.

“People just love it,” Kaur said. “They can come in and start eating that minute. We have customers that are in and out in 15 minutes. Most people don’t have one hour for lunch. It’s reasonable, well priced, all you can eat. You can sample many things.”

The restaurant attracts mostly locals and some students and tourists. However, those who are regulars give new meaning to the term. According to Joshan, some of the customers come to the restaurant as often as three times a day, every day for two weeks.

“Our customers say our quality of food and service is consistent,” Joshan said. “They haven’t had a bad experience in the last 15 years. They say that it gets better each time. The loyal customers come two or three times a week, sometimes even every day.”

Moreover, Kaur said the food can be eaten for each meal because it’s light and customers choose how spicy they want their meal to be. So whether you’re mild, medium or spicy, Flavor of India’s food is sure to appeal to your palette.