As I searched for an eatery to write about this week, I was shocked to discover that one of my favorite restaurants in San Diego has yet to be covered by traditional media in more than just a two-line mention. The place is no secret; local food bloggers, including CityBeat's Marie Tran-McCaslin (meanderingeats.com, circa 2008), have been all over Punjabi Tandoor (9235 Activity Road in Mira Mesa) for some time now, raving about its authentic flavors, hefty lunch specials and low prices.
Before this degenerates into a rant about the questionable tastes of San Diego's food journalists, I'll get into why the very name of the restaurant makes my mouth water.
Magic takes place inside a tandoor oven. It's made from clay and either burns wood or charcoal to reach temperatures as high as 900 degrees. As animal flesh crackles and pops, juices that hit the fire send smoke swirling through the inferno, penetrating the roasted meat. The chicken makhani ($5.95) is tandoored bird cooked in butter, yogurt and tomato gravy. If it's available, get this in your two-item lunch special, which varies from $7 to $8.99 depending on meat and vegetable selections.
Rice with toasted cumin seeds; tandoor-blistered, chewy naan bread; and kheer—a cool, creamy rice dish that's sweet and puts out the fire in your mouth between forkfuls of spicy curry—also come in the lunchtime feast.
It's almost always a full house at the business-park eatery; inside, there's just a few tables for sharing, but out front, there's even more with umbrellas for shade. Recently, I woofed down lunch with my dog in tow, and the chef came out to say that he has a pit bull, too, adding that the dog's favorite thing to eat is chicken tikka masala. Say what?
Turns out, the chef's pooch and I have something in common. The chicken tikka here is superb. Its sauce is creamy, packed with concentrated chicken flavor and hot—like, on a scale of 1 to 10, it's about a 7 or 8. I'm not sure how the gentleman's dog deals with the raging spice blend, but I cope by taking swigs of mango lassi ($2.49), a yogurt-based shake of sorts with plenty of fruit pulp.
Most recently, though, I had a mean case of the munchies on a Sunday night, and I ventured out, even though it was 8:15 p.m. and the place closes at 9 p.m. When my dude and I pulled up, there was a line out the door, every table was full and the smell coming out of the place was enough to make us weak in the knees.
Luckily, the information on Punjabi Tandoor's website was outdated; they're now open on Sunday nights until 9:30 p.m. Joy.
In addition to my chicken tikka, I ordered what I consider one of tastiest non-meat dishes on Earth: navratan korma ($5.95). The base of this rich dish is a creamy curry that's hot and slightly sweet. It has peas, mushrooms, carrots, potatoes and bell peppers, and in no way does it leave me craving flesh.
This is homemade food at its finest, folks. Go grub now.