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Diminutive Name, Sizable Flavor

Lil India serves up a bounty of subcontinental specialties in South County

By Peter Koht

Santa Cruz County is a wonderful place to call home. Beaches, forests, political rallies, we've got 'em. But one thing that this city lacks, besides affordable housing, is a selection of Indian restaurants. Were this Brick Lane in London, or even Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, there would be no shortage of places to score some vindaloo, but alas, there's a scarcity of Indian Restaurants in our fair county.

Downtown, of course, is home to Royal Taj, a local institution whose loyal lunchtime clientele has lined up for years for the midafternoon buffet. At $7.50, it's a respectable bargain, but one whose lineage defies any fresh ink. On the other hand, Lil India in Watsonville is a new addition to the local culinary scene. Nestled in the East Lake Shopping Center next to a Chinese Restaurant and down the row from a salon, its exterior is unassuming, but many delights await behind its humble doors.

Clean linens, fresh paint and tasteful artwork adorn the large open space. At the rear a well-designed buffet beckons the lunchtime crowd. Rather than chafing dishes dating to the Carter administration laid out on linen whose accumulated curry stains bear a striking resemblance to a nautical chart, Lil India's buffet features copper pots suspended over open flames. According to Watsonville nonprofit worker Creek Hull, the rotating buffet represents "a haven of good food floating in a sea of burritos."

Arriving for dinner and looking over the wine list, whose contents were comprised almost entirely of California varietals, including selections from Niebaum-Coppola, Mondavi and Estancia Wineries, my dining companion and I settled on Masala Tea ($1.50) for an aperitif. This black tea, accompanied by notes of cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and cloves, is among the better cups of chai available in the county.

As liberal arts graduates of UCSC, we also choose to dispense with the restaurant's extensive list of "Exotic Appetizers," and moved right on to entrees. All meals from the menu can be served either a la carte or as a dinner. While a la carte comes with rice and nan, the dinner features the addition of dal, raita and a chef's choice of vegetable curry.

Vegetarian dishes are well represented on Lil India's menu and my friend decided to partake of the Navarattan Korma ($8.95/$11.95.) This mild curry, whose heat is tempered with the addition of farmer's cheese and cream, features gently stewed vegetables. The pieces of broccoli, corn and carrot held up under the tines of the fork and were not the sloppy, watery chunks that many Indian restaurants serve up.

Being in desperate need of protein, my own dinner selection took the form of Tandoori Chicken ($9.95/$13.95/$15.95). Available in half portion or as a dinner, it is one of the more modular dishes on the menu and a specialty of the house. Originally from the Punjab region of northern India, this dish of yogurt-marinated chicken features a delicately balanced spice selection with overtones of cayenne, garlic, cumin and ginger. Traditionally roasted in an earthen oven, Lil India's version arrives on skewers in a vibrant shade of ochre.

Our meal finished with a selection of Gulab Jamun accompanied by a small bowl of Payasam, India's version of rice pudding. The Gulab Jamun is a cardiologist's nightmare, a wheat flour ball that has been deep-fried and then left to soak in a sugary bath of syrup spiked cardamom seeds and saffron. A delightfully unhealthy treat, this is an experience not to be overindulged.

While not as tantalizing as the Indian offerings that San Francisco has to offer, Lil India is carving out a niche for the cuisine of the subcontinent in the southern half of the county. Though a combination of friendly and efficient service, tasteful décor and an adventurous menu, Lil India is doing wonders for the gastronomical knowledge of a county whose main point of reference for curry comes from vegetarian potlucks. Dhanya-waadh!

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From the October 12-19, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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