Bombay Express1417A University Ave.Hillcrest619-296-24254 Forks
There were only a dozen people waiting at the DMV. Unfortunately, that was just the line to take a number. Beyond that, the entire blank- and pasty-faced population of San Diego-and their poorly behaved children-packed the place wall-to-wall.
Fighting off the flu, I crumpled my paperwork into my pocket and ran. I scanned the street for a mid-afternoon snack, maybe even something spicy to combat the phlegm clogging my sinuses. On University Avenue, a small sign next to the Living Room Coffee Shop announced, "Bombay Express-Fast-Fresh-Take-Out." Perfect.
The pudgy, gray-haired, slightly reticent man behind the counter walked back to the kitchen to discuss my order with the solemn woman behind the grill. There may have been some disagreement. Alone in the dining room and unable to eavesdrop, I busied myself with the "Peoples of South Asia" foldout from National Geographic framed on the wall.
"It will be a few minutes," he said sheepishly, returning to the register.
Apparently, Bombay Express isn't. We stared at each other uncomfortably. I asked about the unappealing plastic baggies of lentil chips sitting on the drink case.
They are papar, he explained, chips made from lentil beans.
Oh, god, I thought. What have I gotten myself into?
I bought a baggie to be polite, and stumbled upon the greatest undiscovered snack chip in the world: ultra-thin, crispy and slightly greasy, with a more than slightly spicy flavor. I dreamed up deep-pocketed, star-studded papar marketing campaigns that would bury Frito-Lay, at least in my world. I bought a second bag to go with my order, and finished that one as I rushed back to the DMV.
I wound up squatting on the sidewalk outside of the door, eating a sort of Hindi-Mex fusion chicken roll-a thin, fresh tortilla wrapped around chicken chunks swimming in a thick cumin and onion sauce. Indian cooking tends to slow-cook chicken, resulting in some exceptionally melt-in-your-mouth poultry. The roll fell apart in my hands, yellow sauce splattering all over my DMV paperwork; I picked up the pieces of moist chicken with my bare fingers.
The next day, my date and I shared the clean, no-frills Bombay Express dining room with one other diner. Our appetizers came in paper French fry trays, with paper cups of water and mismatched forks. The samosa-two stuffed with cumin-flavored ground beef and peas, two with curry potatoes-were crisp and fresh, but I preferred the onion bhaji, a sort of onion and spinach latke, which needed a bit of salt to reach perfection.
My date ordered a lassi, a sweet combination of homemade yogurt, mango, sugar and milk. I took a sip, and ordered one for myself.
Bombay Express has some vegetarian dishes, but most entrees are the antithesis of green and leafy California dining. The basic setup is some-occasionally quite a lot-heavily-seasoned meat, served over more-or-less spicy basmati rice, with a side of curry potatoes, green (cilantro and dill) and red (tomato) chutneys and a few more of those papar chips, all served on plastic picnic plates.
Not everything is perfect. Avoid the soups, but if you must, the dhal is tolerable, a sort of split pea made from lentil, topped with fresh onions and cilantro.
The tender beef masala fell apart on the fork, but the meat had slight stewed flavor. I'd recommend something from the clay oven, like the Chicken Tekka Massala. The meat is purple from the tandoori rub-coriander, cumin, cardamom and saffron-and coated with cilantro and raw onion. The enormous lamb shank was almost as tender, but with three-alarm spiciness. (I can only imagine the fire packed in entrees such as the beef vindaloo, which, the menu triple-cautions, is "very, very, very hot.")
The proprietor emerged from the kitchen with my lassi, his forehead dotted with beads of sweat. He saw the look on my face and asked if my food was too spicy. I shook my head, unable to talk, and I noticed the red sauce caught in his mustache. I knew how he felt. The previous day at the DMV, I had ended up missing my turn. I got back into line with curry sauce on my face, smiling."A driver's license is a privilege, not a right." Discuss all George Orwell's best lines at cityeat@SD citybeat.com.