Indian spice 

Our guide to Indian and Indian-influenced fare

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$=$5-$10; $$=$10-$25; $$$=$25-$50; $$$$=$50+

Aladdin Sweets & Café 11945 Conant St., Hamtramck; 313-891-8050; aladdinsweet.com; $: This was once just a small, neighborhood place, lacking cloth doilies and polished steel cutlery. But what Aladdin lacked in china and stainless steel it more than made up for in flavor and authenticity. And, after a radical makeover, it now has a more commodious interior and a large patio too. As for the food, instead of complex preparations, try the simple choices on the menu, such as chick peas and spinach, to see how these humble beans and greens come to life when expertly spiced. Don't miss the excellent and hearty naan bread, including the bread with potato baked into it. This small, lively spot is much more than a sweets shop. No alcohol.

Ashoka Indian Cuisine 3642 Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-689-7070; 2100 Haggerty Rd., Canton; 734-844-3100; ashokaindiancuisine.com; $$: Bright colors, rich flavors, exotic aromas. With more than 150 items on its menu, Ashoka serves more than legume-based recipes and fiery spice blends. The bill of fare wanders the subcontinent from the north to the south, including southern Indian specialties, such as Mysore dosa, plain dosa, vada and bhaji poories. There are even sections of the menu devoted to Indian-Chinese food, a style with a following in India, with such selections as chicken spring rolls, chicken Manchurian with gravy and Singapore noodles. Of course, you can still get more typical Indian fare, including vegetable korma, chicken masala and lamb dopiaza. Full-service bar.

Bombay Grille 29200 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-626-2982; bombay-grille.com; $$: Bombay distinguishes itself with the word "grille." You can watch the process through a window in the dining room. Grilled items are prepared in tandoors, deep clay ovens heated by charcoal fires. Most Indian restaurants use gas, which is cheaper, but can't produce the flavor of a charcoal fire. In one tandoor, the chef balances long skewers dressed with lamb, chicken, beef, fish, cheese and vegetables. In another, a chef slaps flattened pieces of dough on the clay wall to make naan. The bread, which blisters as it cooks, is done when it falls off the wall, which takes only minutes. Native eaters use the fragrant, chewy naan to scoop up their food. It's integral to the meal, but has to be ordered separately. The unusual grilling and exotic spices produce flavors you just can't get otherwise. Seekh kabob — minced lamb cooked on a skewer — tastes nothing like the Middle Eastern variation called shish kafta, because of its rich spice blend. Chicken malai is marinated in yogurt and spices, then grilled. There are three vegetarian kebabs, some with paneer, a mild homemade farmer's cheese. This is a great place for carnivores and vegetarians to commingle; the entrée menu is about evenly split between the two. Wine, beer and liquor are offered.

Crown of India 28233 Ford Rd., Garden City; 734-522-1202; $$: This little joint has all the classic curries and other preparations, with perhaps a touch more care than usual. The menu ranges over vegetarian specialties, tandoor dishes, lamb and chicken selections, even with a special seafood section. And these are some very attractive prices; they don't often breach $13. Open for lunch (11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.) and dinner (5-9 p.m.) Tuesday-Thursday; Dinner extends to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Open for lunch (noon-3 p.m.) and dinner (5-9 p.m.) on Sundays. Closed Mondays.

Earthen Jar 311 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-327-9464; earthenjar.com; $: Featuring vegetarian north Indian food in one big buffet, with dozens of selections. But instead of all-you-can-eat dining, this is dining by the pound — $5.99 a pound to be exact. After your food is weighed, you can sit down and eat in their casual shop or carry it out. And no tipping means you can get almost a pound of scandalously healthful food for less than $6.

Haandi Cuisine of India 37116 Six Mile Rd., Livonia; 734-432-2088; haandimichigan.com; $$: It's a little more expensive than some Indian restaurants, but it has a full bar, including Indian beers and wines, and a quiet, cloth-napkin atmosphere. You get naan with your meal, so you're saving right there. Expect intense and multifaceted flavors and a very long menu — 111 dishes plus desserts. Most of the cuisine is northern, but they also feature a few Hyderabadi dishes. The lamb Hyderabadi is cooked in coconut milk and cream, with poppy seeds, so it's creamy, as you'd expect, but with a kick that lifts it out of the ordinary. Some other dishes that you might not see every day are a sweet corn soup, Goan fish curry and bharwan simla mirch, which is a green pepper stuffed with paneer, potato, peas, cashews, cilantro and ginger, grilled on the tandoor using a special recipe.

House of India 28841 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-553-7391; haandimichigan.com; $: Imagine a restaurant where you can enjoy a four-course meal and spend less than $20. With more than 130 choices on the menu, you can rest assured that your dish can be mild or spicy, tangy or savory. All preparations are mouth-watering, fresh, and flavorful. For something mild, try lamb sagwala (with spinach); for something hot, order stuffed bhindi (okra and onions). Best bet is the mango lassi (with buttermilk). Though they may get lost in the shuffle, don't miss the unusual sides, which include achar (a traditional Indian pickle), mango chutney, raita (cukes, tomatoes and onions with whipped yogurt), boondi raita (like an Indian take on falafel), papadum (a crispy lentil-based chip) and brown and green chutneys.

Indo-Pak Restaurant 27707 Dequindre Rd. Madison Heights; 248-541-3562; indopakrestaurant.com; $: Indo-Pak is among the oldest family-owned Indian restaurants in metro Detroit, serving such authentic Indian cuisines as biryanis, kormas, kadais, makhnis and tikka masalas. Extensive vegetarian selection includes bhindi masala, baingan bharta, Punjabi pakora kadi, and malai kofta. Dine-in, carry-out and delivery service available, as well as catering.

International Mini-Cafe 111 E. Kirby, Detroit; 313-377-2555; $: Each day they offer a different soup; three Indian dishes, two of them vegetarian; a "Mideast feast" of hommous, tabouli and falafel; a veggie quesadilla; a pasta dish, such as spaghetti with chicken meatballs; nachos; three pizzas; Greek salad; and three American-style sandwiches. Desserts are Middle Eastern pastries, and you will often find crisp, fresh samosas waiting on the entrance table. Where is this gem hidden? Weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in the basement of the International Institute, at Kirby and John R, just east of Woodward, near the DIA and the CCS campus. For years, it has been the best lunch deal in Detroit's mid-city area. So now you know.

Mayur Indian Cuisine 5113 S. Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-457-1914; mayurindiancuisine.com; $: We're amazed that Mayur is able to fit its entire menu on a single two-sided sheet of paper. With 22 appetizers, four soups, 18 vegetarian entrées, 12 chicken entrées, two Indo-Chinese chicken dishes, six seafood entrées, nine lamb and goat entrées, eight tandoor or kebab dishes, seven biryanis, six Indo-Chinese rice and noodle choices, 12 south Indian selections (heavy on the dosas) and 12 breads, there should be just about something for everyone. What's more, their affordable brunches offer the chance to try a little of everything, and even include carryout options for office workers on the go.

Motimahal 411 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak; 248-298-3198; motimahalroyaloak.com ; $: Ullah Abdul has 27 years experience with Northern Indian Cuisine in London, Montreal, Windsor, and metro Detroit. Hamtramck residents may remember him from the Bengal Masala Café on Conant, and his new venture retains many of the specialties he served there, with his emphasis on British preparations that can be hard to find here (such as balti). He is known for affordable prices, heaping portions, artful breads and value buffets. This new endeavor, opened just weeks ago, is worth a look.

Neehee's Indian Vegetarian Street Food 45490 Ford Rd., Canton; 734-737-9777; neehees.com; $: What a kick to discover you can get Indian street food in Michigan! We counted 96 dishes for sale at Neehee's, not counting the drinks and house-made ice creams. It's a bewildering array, incorporating street snacks from all over the subcontinent. You could just stick with the familiar samosas, dosas and pakoras, but we advise you to read the big posters around the room that describe the different dishes and their origins, and go from there. The space at Neehee's is extremely small — five uncovered tables — and unpretentious; a lot of the business is carryout; you eat out of polystyrene with plastic forks; you get your water from a yellow-and-red Igloo cooler. Somehow it's especially impressive to see huge, paper-thin dosas served under those circumstances. Don't pass up the Indo-Chinese dishes, which, a poster straightforwardly proclaims, "correspond loosely, if at all, with authentic Chinese food preparation." The $2.50 mango lassi at Neehee's is as good as anyone's, and the house-made ice creams are excellent, in such unusual flavors as fig, kesar pista (saffron pistachio), bright-yellow mango and chikoo, which uses sun-dried fruit of the sapodilla tree, shipped from India.

Priya 72 W. Maple Rd., Troy, 248-269-0100; 36600 Grand River Ave., Farmington Hills; 248-615-7700; priyacuisine.com; $$: Why did Priya win our readers' poll for Best Indian last year? It has plenty of dishes from southern India, such as rice-lentil cr�pes, that are hard to find in Michigan. But it doesn't stint on the more familiar dishes from other parts of India. Another plus: Herbivores and carnivores will feel equally at home. But it's hard to pinpoint just why it's a winner. Whether you're walking into the Farmington Hills or Troy locations, the Indian-style decoration and art make guests feel as though they actually are in India. Chef Sukhdev Singh specializes in various kinds of Indian dishes, but is especially talented with northern Indian dishes. His special palak daneer and chicken tikka masala are both popular. Owner Ravi Mandava recommends the chicken Shangri-La, masala dosa and tandoori chicken. Vegetarian dishes, such as vegetable masala and navratan koorma, are also good choices. A daily lunch buffet, featuring more than 13 items, is served between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Bar, banquet rooms and dance floor are available.

Raja Rani Fine Indian Cuisine 400 S. Division St., Ann Arbor; 734-995-1545; rajarani-restaurant.com; $$: Reliable Ann Arbor stop for Indian food. Try Monday buffets (11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. for lunch, 5-9:15 p.m. for dinner) to test the waters, and, if you're sold, dive into a dinner for two. Menu has Tandoori delicacies, great naan, extensive selection of chutneys and chai tea too! What's more, what may be the oldest Indian restaurant in Ann Arbor, it's housed in a lovely old Victorian house.

Rangoli Indian Cuisine 3055 E. Walton Blvd., Auburn Hills, 248-377-3800; 44631 Mound Rd., Sterling Heights; detroitrangoli.com; $$: Rangoli has a surprisingly extensive appetizer list, and adventurous diners will probably want to go beyond samosas to try a spicy dosa, chaat papdi, pav bhaji or cut mirch, banana peppers stuffed with a tangy peanut and tamarind paste, batter-fried, sliced and topped with onions and cilantro. Entrées at Rangoli come in small copper bowls. Among our favorites: nargisi aloo (a saucy, scooped-out potato stuffed with nuts, vegetables and cheese); chicken tikka masala (roasted breast meat in a thick and luscious sauce); spicy-hot chettinadu pepper chicken (fiery peppers in a coconut curry). If you're new to Indian food, there are several combination dishes you can try, or come for the lunch buffet in Auburn Hills. You can't beat the prices. Liquor license.

Royal Indian Cuisine 3877 S. Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-743-0223; myroyalindiancuisine.com; $: In the old days, an Indian menu specializing in (or, heck, even offering) regional cuisine would have been an unusual exception. But that trend is changing. And so it's not amazing anymore that Royal Indian offers an extensive menu of Indian food from both the north and south, or even those Indian-Chinese dishes we're hearing more about. But Royal's emphasis on quality and the hard work of the Nepali family that operates it do make a difference. The 120-plus-item menu has old standbys, as well as plenty of vegetarian fare, but the lamb dishes got our attention. This is more than rogan josh: They offer lamb sagwala, curry, masala, jalfraize, vindaloo, korma and kadai. As usual, to sample cheaply, hit the lunchtime buffet. Uses authentic spices, house-mixed.

Ruchi Indian Cuisine 29555 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield; 248-352-3200; ruchidetroit.com; $$: The vibrant colors and flavors that characterize Indian food are abundant here. American customers may be puzzled about why it takes some time to get entrées, but that's because each dish is cooked to order. Chicken biryani features dark meat in basmati rice ranging in color from yellow to gold to orange and is served with a yogurt sauce. Lamb shahi korma is served in a small copper dish raised up on little brass feet. It is served in a creamy sauce that incorporates coconut, almonds, eggs and spices and tastes heavenly. The chicken tikka is cooked in a tandoori oven on a skewer. The round clay oven used for Indian tandooris gets very hot, giving a nicely grilled flavor to the seasonings of masala, yogurt and lemon juice on the chicken. Big chunks of breast meat are served on a sizzling hot platter with strips of onions and peppers. The same dish ordered with lamb, medium spicy, is also delicious. Open daily for lunch (buffet) and dinner. Banquet facilities are available. Full bar.

Star of India 180 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-546-5996; $: Star of India offers an Indian menu that hits all the usual points, though generally with less spice and milder curry than many other Indian restaurants, which may make it a good restaurant for Americans who are just getting used to the pungent aromas and incendiary spices of really authentic Indian cuisine. Among better dishes are two variations on korma, a creamy, yogurt-based sauce with a mild blend of spices punctuated by yellow raisins and slivers of almonds. Loaves of naan, a flatbread baked in a clay oven, are great snacks.

Udipi 29210 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-626-6021; $$: Located along a stretch of Orchard Lake Road that is home to several Indian restaurants, Udipi is the only vegetarian one. It's remarkable just how unusual and delicious these vegetarian dishes can be, especially the appetizers, which include idli (steamed-rice-and-lentil patties soaked in different sauces), vada (a savory donut made of lentil flour and dotted with bright green cilantro), and vegetarian bhaji (fried vegetables coated with flour). You'll also find a dozen takes on the dosa, the Indian crepe made of rice flour, filled to overflowing with such items as tomatoes, potatoes and onions, and more than a half-dozen takes on the uthappam, an Indian pancake that comes with various vegetable toppings. In addition to house-made naan, you'll also find other breads: poori, paratha and batura. Eleven kinds of rice specialties (flavored with everything from tomato and spices to coconut and seasonings) await your order. These choices and more make Udipi the finest South Indian vegetarian restaurant in town. For a cheaper taste, hit their daily lunch buffet.

ZamZam 11917 Conant, Hamtramck; 313-893-9902; zamzamcafe.com; $: Situated north of Caniff on Conant in a building previously occupied by another Indian restaurant, ZamZam offers a full menu of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian cuisine from lunch through the late evening. Value is a term that gets tossed about often, but ZamZam could easily find itself pictured next to the word in an illustrated dictionary. There isn't an item on the menu more than $10, the portion sizes are significant, and the food is enjoyable. Our three-person party has been able to leave on more than one occasion with bags full of leftovers and bellies bursting with joyfully obtained discomfort for less than $40. The bulk of the menu consists of a lengthy list of entrées covering the breadth of the region. Interestingly, ZamZam serves halal food, but they also serve a much higher percentage of meat dishes than do most area Indian restaurants. Herbivorous folks shouldn't be too disappointed though: The vegetable entrées are as delicious and inexpensive as everything else. Each meal comes with either rice or naan, though given the low cost and large portions, it's easy enough to enjoy both in a sitting, especially if those at the table share. ZamZam serves no alcohol, but they offer plenty of beverages, including teas, soft drinks and both sweet yogurt and mango lassis. Open 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

See any inaccuracies? Let us know! Send an e-mail to mjackman@metrotimes.com or call 313-202-8043.

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