By Ashley Naftule, March 2019 issue.
What comes to mind when you think of Phoenix cuisine? Is it our award-winning pizzas, crafted by artisanal masters like Chris Bianco? The abundance of south-of-the-border riches that can be sampled and savored at amazing Mexican eateries like Barrio Cafe and La Santisima? Or would you think of Indian food?
The odds are good that most people don’t think of Phoenix, Tempe, or Scottsdale being hubs of Punjabi cuisine. But quality Indian is everywhere in the Valley, and most of it is still very affordable for diners looking to get their fill on a budget. It’s almost a well-kept secret how many great buffets there are in town. Partly it’s because a lot of Indian restaurants lack the Instagram able “wow” factor of more modern “concept” establishments. They’re family joints that haven’t updated their aesthetics with the times.
This is a mark in their favor: With the preponderance of tablecloths and paintings and other ephemera hanging all over the place in most buffets, it offers a sound buffer that keeps these places from being the kind of noisy, cacophonous dins that most trendy restaurants have turned into. You can have a conversation in these places without having to raise your voice.
Instead of crafting hip environs, most Indian buffets are focused on producing food that is both cheap and high quality. And while Indian food is hardly a monoculture (there are a staggering number of regional cuisines and fusion styles, befitting a nation that over a billion people call home), one thing that unites Indian establishments across the Valley is their dedication to providing vegan and vegetarian options — making them a safe choice for any mixed group of omnivores and herbivores.
We wanted to highlight a few of our favorite buffet spots. To be clear: We’re not saying that these are the best ever buffets in town. But these are places where you’re sure to walk away with a full stomach and a smile on your face for under $20.
Udupi Indian Cuisine
Located in a strip mall in the no man’s land of car dealerships and strip clubs that stretches between Scottsdale and Tempe, Udupi is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. The restaurant’s interiors reflect its humble exteriors: There are no murals of elephants or deities gracing its burgundy walls. It looks functional and barebones, like a cafeteria.
But don’t let the plain appearance fool you: Udupi’s food packs a supremely satisfying punch.
Specializing in vegan & vegetarian dishes, the buffet at Udupi is savory and rich. The crown jewel of the buffet is their cauliflower dish Gobi Manchurian. To this lifelong carnivore, it was hard to believe that it wasn’t meat-based. Fluffy yet crispy, they had the pleasing crunch of orange chickens without the overpowering sweetness. The buffet doesn’t always offer samosas, but when they do it’s a particular highlight — they’re a nice spicy contrast to the compulsively edible Manchurian (it’s challenging for me not to lay a towering mound of them all over my plate).
The buffet offered treats like fried lentil donuts and all the warm, chewy Paratha you could handle. There really is no weak dish on offer at Udupi’s buffet, except for the complimentary Dosa that comes with the meal. The rice crepe is tasty by itself, but the yellow paste in its center has a mild and clammy (in the sweating palm sense of the word) texture.
There’s always a decent crowd at Udupi for its buffet, but the lines to serve yourself are never long, and the staff is attentive and quick to fill drink orders. It’s an unpretentious and friendly environment: A perfect place to wander into for a quick bite when the mood for vegan Indian food strikes.
Delhi Palace Cuisine of India
A little hole in the wall situated near the bustling intersection of University & Rural, Delhi Palace Cuisine of India is one of several international food spots clustered together in this strip mall. Walk inside, and you’ll be greeted by the buffet: A larger dining room decorated with murals of tigers and elephants sits to the right. The ceiling overhead is festooned with ornate chandeliers.
Delhi Palace’s buffet is omnivore friendly, but the best dishes are vegetarian. The most delightful offering on hand is their vegetable fritters. They’re deceptively powerful: At first, all I could focus on was the fritter’s crunchy, crumbling texture. The spicy of the fritter hit hard afterward. Much like Udupi’s Gobi Manchurian, it’s a hard item to consume in small doses.
The chicken curry was warm and sweet to taste, but extremely boney: Every other bite; I had to stop and fish a bone shard out of my mouth. The chicken tikka masala was rich and flavorful; like all good masalas, it was creamy and smooth as butter. The tandoori was unsatisfying: It tasted undercooked.
Delhi Palace’s secret weapon, though, is its naan bread. Fluffy and fragrant, it was perfect for sopping up curry. But it was so delicious that it could make a fine meal on its own. The servers would frequently swing by the table, offering to pile on more naan. Even when I ended up with a pile of naan that would tower over a flapjack stack, I didn’t hesitate to say “more, please” when they passed by with that piping hot basket.
Nandini Indian Cuisine
A hop and a skip away from the light rail station, Nandini Indian Cuisine is another one of Tempe’s fine Indian food establishments. The inside of Nandini is soothing: The walls are sky blue, and the tablecloths have a light golden color to them. Eating at Nandini’s feels like you’re noshing in Heaven’s waiting room. I half-expected a cloud to float over my head as I downed my fourth cup of chai tea.
Nandini’s buffet, like Delhi Palace, is omnivore-friendly. The restaurant offers both vegetarian and Halal options. The Palak paneer had a subtle ginger flavor and tasted wonderful heaped on top of hot garlic naan; It was also one of the spicier dishes on offer at the Nandini buffet. There wasn’t much in the way of heat in most of the savory dishes: Even the spiced chicken tasted pretty mild compared to that paneer. But the chicken drumsticks and tikka masala onhand were fantastic — So tender I barely had to chew the meat before it fell to pieces in my mouth.
There was also a nice array of sauces at the buffet — Staples like tamarind and mint, as well as a pickle sauce. Much like everything pickle-related that isn’t an actual pickle (pickle smoothies, pickle ice cream, pickle soda), it was interesting more than it was enjoyable. The puckery tartness of the sauce would make a decent substitute for the food’s lack of spiciness, so all you gourmet masochists out there should fill a bowl with it the next time you pop by Nandini’s.
Aside from Udupi’s, Nandini’s is the only other restaurant I went back to try their dinner menu. If you enjoy lamb, Nandini’s Punjabi-influenced dinner menu will officially be your favorite. Their lamb kebabs are Last Meal On Death Row worthy: Sizzling cubes of marinated meat spiced to perfection.
Flavors of India
The first time I ever set foot in Flavors of India, it was to meet up with a crush. That meeting turned into the worst date of my life. An hour and a half of grueling, tedious conversation. Desperate to salvage something good out of the experience, I focused on the food. I devoured my chicken korma slowly, purposefully, trying to savor every bit of flavor from its seasoned meat and cashews. I pretended I was chewing my way out of this dull encounter, tunneling my way out from under the Flavors of India floorboards, hopping into my car and peeling out with a mouthful of cashews while my date was none the wiser.
It’s a testament to the quality of Flavors of India’s food that it’s good enough to inspire those kinds of daydreams. Like the best food, it can be a life preserver to keep you afloat when you feel like sinking.
It would be a few years before I came back to FOI to try its buffet after that disastrous dinner date. I’d forgotten how odd it looks from the outside. It’s a long, nondescript brown building that looks like it could house a bowling alley or hobby shop. The inside is more colorful and eccentric — Bolts of fabric hang from the ceiling and wrap around poles.
The Flavors buffet is pretty cheap and has a generous array of dishes on hand. Curries, creamy chicken dishes, paneers, and lentils fill decorative serving trays. The butter chicken and the masalas hit the spot, as do the desserts on offer — rice pudding, mango pudding, and fried balls of dough. The dough balls are sweetened with sugar syrup — take one bite of them, and it’ll make every donut hole you’ve ever eaten taste like garbage by comparison.
Much like Nandini’s, Flavors goes relatively light on the spices. There’s enough heat on their dishes to give you a little water in your eyes, but none of the dishes I sampled there were hot enough to make me shout a safeword and beg for ice water. To be fair, though, your mileage may vary. I grew up in a household that was obsessed with Thai and North African food. My father was so accustomed to wolfing down spicy dishes without batting an eye that he would have eaten hot lava off a plate if it was on the menu.
While nothing on offer at Flavors hit the “last meal ever” highs of Udupi’s Gobi or Nandini’s kebobs, the food there was tasty and affordable. For anyone looking to dip their toes in the wide-ranging world of Indian cuisine, Flavors is a great starting point.