Field report: Tarka Indian Kitchen

Brief reviews of restaurants that missed the cut for the Fed Man 55
Tarka Indian Kitchen
2525 W. Anderson Lane. 512-323-0955, Also at 5207 Brodie Lane and 201 University Blvd. in Round Rock.
Hours: Sun-Thu 11am-9pm. Fri-Sat 11am-10pm.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 01.21.13
Think of Tarka Indian Kitchen as a kind of Indian-as-a-second-language school for the Subcontinentally curious. Behold the “naanini,” which is either a mash-up of naan and panini or the new power couple of the Supernanny and James Gandolfini. More than an anglicized hybrid name generator, Tarka is a fast-casual concept launched in 2009 by the founders of the Clay Pit, who clearly wanted to bring the spirit of mom-and-pop Indian shops to a wider audience, something they’ve done with two new locations since then.
The first time I had samosa chaat ($3.50) at Tarka in 2010, it was a more elegant representation of this Indian street snack, with a crisp fried shell filled with spiced potato and dappled with a panoply of Indian finery: chickpeas, the yogurt sauce called raita, onions, tomatoes and a thick stew of chutney, cumin and other russet spices. On a trip this fall, the samosa was soggy under a bog of those same elements, turning a smart, disciplined snack into a sprawling dumpling stew, albeit a fine-tasting one.
Mirch masala with lamb ($8.75) promised a fiery curry with chiles, mushrooms and onions. Within each of Tarka’s menu divisions — curries, biryani rice bowls, vegetarian dishes — you can choose mild, medium and hot levels. So when I ordered the “hot” version of a curry already described as fiery, I was hoping for a cry-to-mama experience, when there’s not enough sweet mango lemonade in the whole store to put out the flames.
That didn’t happen. What did happen was a stew so thick with lamb it could stand a spoon, the steam rising from a thick tawny broth with an electric oil sheen, sweet like a puttanesca sauce with the tang of onion and the flintlock crackle of cumin seeds, with sliced mushrooms absorbing whatever flavors the lamb didn’t convey on its own. The lamb carried the long pull of stew meat, but its bite was like al dente pasta, and for less than $9 with a cricket-ball-sized scoop of rice, it’s one of the best lamb values in the city. Chicken, vegetable and shrimp curries — including creamy, tomato-packed tikka masala — hit similar high-value points on earlier visits.
Tarka daal ($7.25) put the power of yellow lentils on display in a thick-textured porridge flavored with tomato, cumin seed, onions and curry. It’s pure vegetarian comfort food, at its best when scooped with naan bread ($1.75) pulled fluffy from the oven with toasted beauty marks from the tandoor.
This well-scrubbed, sunlit space doesn’t have the cachet of hardcore Indian lunchrooms like Sarovar, the alternative cred of the boozy Whip-In nor specialties like the airy parasol dosas of Swad, Asiana or Madras Pavilion. What it does have is a survey course of accessible and affordable Indian food in an unassuming line-and-booth setting, a Jason’s Delhi for the suburban set.
(TOP: Lamb mirch masala, left, naan bread and Tarka daal. INSET: Tarka’s newest addition on West Anderson Lane; samosa chaat. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)