In another life, I must have been an Indian princess (actually, I must have lived many lives in which I was Mexican, Spanish, Italian...LOL!). I absolutely love Indian food, and while I probably shouldn’t eat it three times a day for fear of burning my GI tract to a crisp by the age of 40, I think I would if I could. With so many Indian restaurants on the Westside, really, I could.
Recently we decided to try Ambala Dhaba, curious about what makes it “homestyle Indian cooking.” The restaurant’s parent is in Artesia’s Little India, but they have just recently opened up this satellite location here on Westwood Boulevard just north of Santa Monica Boulevard. If you drive through this area, you probably pass it all the time, but just never notice it. It’s set way back away from the street in a small plaza of sorts. When you actually set your mind to go there, you’ll arrive and smack yourself in the forehead. “This is Ambala Dhaba? I’ve driven by this a million times!” I smacked mine pretty hard.
There’s quite a bit of space out front for what seems like a small parking lot, but it’s not really a good idea to park there. At least not when we went there. The neighboring establishment, somewhat oddly named Rooms, is some sort of cafe that was hosting a live musician. Judging by the audience that had spilled out onto the patio and into the parking lot, the musician must have been a young local Asian musician – maybe a UCLA student pre-med-by-day-for-parents whose real heart’s desire is to be in a band by night. We walked carefully past flying cigarette ashes and stumbling Giant Robot junkies.
Ambala Dhaba has a small, enclosed patio out front, but we were wary of wayward customers from next door, so we chose to sit inside. The restaurant is small, with decor that definitely identifies itself as an Indian restaurant, but not in an obnoxious way. As we sat down in a booth by the window, I immediately noticed an odor. It was incense, and it almost made me nauseous, not because it was noxious, but because it was so unfamilar and slightly too strong.
There are two other tables inside with us, and to groups on the patio. With one server and one busser, service was sometimes slow throughout the evening, but we were in no rush. The menu is not unlike menus from all the other Indian restaurants I’ve been to. It just seems to cover a lot more ground. There are meats from the tandoori oven, curries, vegetables, all sorts of other things like bread, biryani, and appetizer type things that looked interesting and made me wish I had invited more friends to come along.
We started with what I can’t ever go without, an order of samosas, and chili garlic naan, a type of naan that I had never seen before. Strange, one would think I would have seen lots of chili and garlic over all the other ones like...cheese naan! The naan was wide, long, flat, and fairly chewy. I didn’t love the texture of the bread part, as I am still on my everquest for fluffy naan, but I certainly loved the flavor of the chili and garlic. It wasn’t that spicy, but I just plopped whatever spicy pickle it was in the small jar on the table and I was happy.
The samosas were probably the best I’ve ever seen, and yes, I am talking about how sexy they look, LOL! Deep fried to a medium dark crisp, they were shapely and voluptuous, softly rounded on the bottom, tapering to a pert little tip. The two dumplings, with their disheveled bedheads of chopped cilantro, sit in a perfect puddle of cilantro chutney, leaning against each other, as if exhausted after their oily romp in the deep fryer. I felt sort of bad tearing them away from each other, but that feeling passed pretty soon after I cut one open. The inside was muted mustard yellow dotted with bright green peas. I took a bite with the chutney. Incredible. I loved that the filling was fairly large chunks of potatoes rather than the usual mash. Damn that I had to share!
We were tempted to order our Indian usuals of bengan bharta, saag paneer, gobi aloo, and some sort of chicken curry (would they have scoffed if I had asked where the chicken tikka masala was?), but if we came here to see “why homestyle?” then I wanted to try something different. Anything that was familiar was probably not homestyle, so we opted for a chicken from the tandoor (but not the typical maraschino cherry red tandoori chicken) and the vegetable of the day. I had my fingers crossed hoping that it might have been my ATF (all time favorite) eggplant, but the server said bindhi. Okra is definitely not a bad backup.
Presented artistically on a plate with sliced red onions, tomato wedges, and lemons that might have been limes, the Ludhiana Chicken was an earthy roasted brown color with the faintest hint of yellow. There was no skin on the meat that had pulled away from the bone in the dry heat of the oven, just some of the outlying spots charred to black and other crevasses filled with dark yellow green spices and herbs. I grabbed a leg by the spindly little bone sticking out from the edge of the plate. I’m a leg girl. :)
The chicken had an interesting smell. It was strong, so I knew there was definitely going to be flavor, but I wasn’t exactly sure I was going to like the flavor. But sometimes things taste vastly different from how they smell, so I took a bite. I hope they didn’t mind that I was basically gripping the leg with my fingers and taking a bite out of it like it was the Colonel’s drumstick. *oink!*
This is where my post about Ambala Dhaba is going to get a little tricky, especially since there are so many people who adore this place. I didn’t like what I tasted. The chicken meat was tender, though not juicy, but it had a sort of earthy taste. Not earthy like hearty and “of the earth” and whatever else earthy means, but earthy as in, eau de mud. It sounds a bit harsh, but I just can’t really describe the flavor in any other way. If it means anything, I also think saffron has a bit of a mud essence as well. So, I can’t really give any sort of objective review of the Ludhiana Chicken, only the first taste reaction of my tongue. It just wasn’t a taste that I’d choose again.
The kadhai bhindi made me tilt my head a little when it came to the table, as it looked nothing like what I expected. I had only tasted okra cooked in Indian style once before at Annapurna, a southern Indian place, where it was cooked soft in a fairly thick gravy. This looked more like it had been dry-sauteed, the way Chinese long beans are dry stir-fried in a wok with xo sauce. I didn’t love this dish either. *sigh* The okra looked dry because they were dry, and though they had been seasoned fairly strongly with herbs and spices, again like the chicken, it wasn’t a flavor I particularly cared for.
Based on this first experience at Ambala Dhaba, I don’t think I love homestyle Indian cooking. The samosas were excellent, but the two main dishes we tried were a flavor that didn’t agree with my palate. It isn’t that the foods weren’t what I was expecting from an Indian restaurant, for even if the same herb and spice combination were used in any other cuisine, I wouldn’t love it. I do know now that my preference in Indian foods is for saucy, tangy, and with a heat so intense that it makes me sweat, over the dry, earthy, and much less spicy of what I understand is Punjabi (northern) style.
I’ll probably go back to Ambala Dhaba, since I can’t decide that I don’t like an entire style of cooking based on just two dishes. But I'm pretty sure that my first taste instinct is usually right. I don’t think I’ll ever get to trying the bakra, the goat dishes that everyone seems to rave about, but that’s just me. I still have to give Ambala Dhaba a chance on their kulfi though. I know! Can you believe I didn’t try their ice cream the first time?!?!