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January 18-24, 2006

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Amber Cafe

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Pizza the Bombay Way: Amber Cafe's Chicken '65 pizza is one of its tastiest offerings.

Fast, Cheap And Full Of Soul

Amber Cafe is fast food for people who like good food

By Stett Holbrook

Fast food gets a bad rap. And rightly so. Most of it is soulless corporate slop extruded from food factory assembly lines with all the flavor and nutritional value of a clod of dirt. I like burgers and fries as much as the next guy, but when I'm forced to eat at a national fast food chain I feel like I've committed a culinary crime and am filled with diner's remorse.

That's why Mountain View's Amber Cafe is such a welcome addition to the local dining scene. The restaurant is fast food, but in a good way. The kitchen strives to prepare each order within 10 minutes, and most dishes go for well under $10. But Amber Cafe breaks from the fast food mold with the quality of food it serves. Call it good breeding.

The cafe, which describes itself as "Indian bits and bites," is the more casually dressed little brother of Amber India Restaurant, a pair of celebrated upscale Indian restaurants in San Jose and Mountain View. The elder Amber restaurants rank as the some of the South Bay's premier Indian restaurants.

Three-month-old Amber Cafe bears a strong family resemblance to its older siblings. The food sparkles with just-made freshness, creative interpretations of Indian food and bold, assertive flavors that are anything but watered down for Western tastes.

Compared to Amber India Restaurant, the cafe's food is lighter and served in smaller portions. There are only three curry dishes available (vegetable, chicken and lamb dishes that change each day). The stars of the menu are the excellent pizzas, the paratha wraps and the chaat (small plates and snacks). The wraps and pizzas are the restaurant's bestsellers.

Amber Cafe has a small, colorful dining room and tables for outdoor dining in warm weather. Inside, the walls are decorated with Indian food-themed cartoons and lively Indian pop music pulses through the restaurant. The place is popular with local Indians and tech workers who crowd the place at lunch. The restaurant does a good dinner business as well as staying open to 10:30pm on weekends.

Most of the menu is drawn from northern India, but there are a few dishes inspired by the street foods of Bombay, such as pav bhaji and lamb frankie. Part of what sets Amber Cafe apart is its chaat. While billed as appetizers, these generous dishes would work well as a light lunch. The aforementioned pav bhaji ($6.49) is a rich vegetarian stew, thick with tomatoes and onions that have simmered in a ruddy tikka masala-like sauce that doesn't skip on the capsicum heat. It's served with "pav" bread, springy glazed rolls that look just like Hawaiian bread but aren't as sweet.

Perfect for a small meal is the formidably named mutter adrak ki aloo tikki ($3.99). The dish pairs two light potato cakes filled with a gingery green pea mixture. The two cakes are topped with tamarind and mint chutneys and served on a plate of sultry chole, a rich and liberally seasoned garbanzo bean stew.

Less successful was the shammi kebab ($6.49), two lamb patties fried in an iron skillet. The meat was dry and pasty and the addition of cardamom created an odd contrast with the lamb. Dahi balle ($3.99), lentil dumplings soaked sweetened yogurt, was good but might work better as a dessert.

Wraps come in a choice of whole wheat, methi (fenugreek) or egg parathas. The mushroom and eggplant—meaty, juicy chunks of portobello and white mushrooms and heavily seasoned eggplant—wrap is great. The malai methi chicken fills two parathas with tender pieces of spicy, fenugreek-seasoned white and dark meat chicken with cilantro and red onion. The dish is particularly good with one of the restaurant's mouth-cooling mango lassis ($2.49).

If you haven't had Indian pizza before, it may sound like fusion food gone wrong, but the pairing of Indian-spiced vegetables and meat atop thick, naanlike bread is a natural. The chicken '65 is especially good. ($6.99). The bread comes pilled with chunks of curried chicken, cheese, red onions and green bell peppers. It's a delicious, satisfying dish.

Punjabi chole bhature ($6.49) tastes like the garbanzo bean stew served with the mutter adrak ki aloo tikki but it's less impressive on its own. A spoonful of the mint and tamarind chutney helps liven it up.

With the success of the Mountain View location, Amber Cafe's owners are considering opening additional restaurants in San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area. If this is fast food, I'm all for it. Full speed ahead.

Amber Cafe

Address: 600 W El Camino Real, Mountain View.

Phone: 650.968.1751

Hours: Mon-Fri 11am-2:30pm and Sat-Sun 11am-3pm, Mon-Thurs 5pm-10pm and Fri-Sun 5:30pm-10:30pm.

Price Range: $3.99-$9.99.


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