BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
Most Indian restaurants are depressingly formal, with dim lighting, wrought-iron elephants and the sense that the restaurant is more a testament to the psychological scars of colonialism than a cheerful venue for food. Not at Punjabi Dhaba, where the staff banter with each other in the open kitchen, food is quickly dispensed on metal trays and Bollywood musicals blare on the mounted TV.
The enthusiastic spirit of the place is infectious — even with two feet of snow on the ground, all the tables are full and everyone is happily munching Indian food, peering out at Inman Square. When the patrons finally emerge, the contrast between cheerful curry and whipping winds is too much to bear, and they quickly hop in one of the cabs perched outside.
The food is much better than it has to be, given the restaurant’s speed and convenience. Lamb is best in vindaloo form ($9.95 with naan); the well-done chunks crumble with a touch of a fork. The lamb and potatoes do well at picking up the flavor of the sauce, which itself sings with extremely fresh cilantro and chiles. Like all dishes, it comes with pillowy basmati rice, a slightly bitter chutney of fresh onions and a perfect raita — a tangy, sour yogurt sauce. A pineapple or mango lassi ($1.95) is a great way to cleanse the palate if the chiles get a bit overwhelming.
The goat masala ($9.95) is richer than the lamb, but with milder flavor. The tandoori chicken ($6.95 for half a chicken) is at its best impossibly moist, with a perfect reddish exterior lightly dusted with curry powder — all the juicy tenderness of fried chicken without the saturated fat. The chicken does lose this texture gradient somewhat when it is cooked in advance and then reheated in the tandoor, so it should be ordered during busier hours when they have no precooked chickens on hand.
Baingan bharta ($8.95 with naan) is a standout among the vegetarian dishes — the smoked eggplant is pulpy and meaty, quelling all desire for meat in the way that only Indian vegetarian food can. The pancake-like dosai ($2-4.95 depending on fillings), however, are thicker and greasier than at Tanjore or other nearby competitors. Grease suits the fried breads well, however: gobi paratha ($2.95), stuffed with finely chopped spiced cauliflower, is a great balancing of a crispy exterior and soft vegetable center, as is the aloo paratha ($2.95) which is stuffed with potatoes and peas. The samosas ($.75) are splendid, if occasionally burnt and the chickpea, potato and pea filling seems wholesome and healthful enough to balance out the fried dough encasing it.
The main departures from freshness and quality at Punjabi Dhaba are in the seafood realm. Shrimp masala ($8.95) arrives tough and rubbery, and the fish masala ($6.95) is made from frozen, fish-stick quality haddock that no creamy sauce can save. Traditional Indian items are a better bet.
Punjabi Dhaba’s desserts offer the best calorie-to-price ratio outside of McDonald’s — all are either $1 or $1.25. The rice pudding and gulab jamun — fried balls of dough soaked in sugar syrup — are more or less extremely inexpensive versions of what other Indian restaurants in the area peddle, although the gulab jamun have a significantly fluffier texture than other restaurants’ versions if they have been made recently. My favorite is gajjar halva, a warm cake made from liberal amounts of pureed carrots, with milk, sugar and clarified butter. The buttery carrot texture contrasts beautifully with the crunchy pistachios the dessert is topped with. Rasmali, homemade cheese in sweet milk, is also excellent.
The Dhaba in the name of the restaurant refers to roadside cafes that serve truckers on their treks across India. Here in Cambridge, Punjabi Dhaba welcomes all travelers every day until midnight — if the urge to wander a bit strikes you while you’re mulling over what kind of pizza to order, there is no better place to go.
225 Hampshire St.