When I first moved to Iowa City half a lifetime ago I had never eaten Indian food. The first time I fearlessly dove into the buffet at India Cafe would be the beginning of a lifelong love of Indian spices and preparations. I crave those crazy Indian pickles like other people do chocolate, and I’m pretty sure that my plasma is partially made of the green mint sauce. While my love of Indian and Pakistani cuisine started here in Iowa City in the late ‘90s, I’ve since eaten Indian food all over the country and the world. The worst was in Rome, and to this day the best was a secret New York City cabbie spot introduced to me by an old Iowa City musician friend who played in Greenpot Bluepot.
The fact that “the restaurant” was essentially the back room of your run-of-the-mill Bowery bodega and that Indian and Pakistani cab drivers were eating there in droves (pun intended) shoveling food economically into their mouths with their fingers, made it reek of legitimacy. Entering this place was the same every time: They thought I was lost until I put up one finger flashing the international symbol for “one crappy styrofoam plate, please!” Then I’d saddle up to the buffet practically drooling on myself. They jarred their own pickles and were open 24 hours a day—I was hooked. It was one of the places that made leaving New York City feel like a huge mistake. Where would I get my spice infusion? How would I survive without real Indian food?
Upon returning to the city where it all began, I was making lunch meetings at India Cafe before I was even unpacked. My first visit back proved that it was still good, but it was better than good — it was legit. Cabbie stand legit.
Inside the brightly-colored restaurant, the staff are kind and attentive to the bustling lunch crowd: They keep the spice-relieving water coming and, if you have not been in for a while, at least two of the kind folks that work there will ask, practically with concern, where you have been. They are so attentive that once, when I did not bring work to do while eating, the sunny, personable woman who works there complimented me on enjoying my lunch.
I rarely take the opportunity to order an actual single-dish meal at India Cafe because it’s my lunch time jam and the buffet is vast. There are options for the dairy, gluten and meat free among us, but I love getting a bunch of different stuff and mixing it together like the cabbies taught me. The tandoori chicken is perfectly addictive. Slightly charred, fat and juicy, it’s one of the less spicy dishes on the buffet and worth the $10 per person bill alone. The offerings change throughout the week, but there are many constants. There is always a small salad bar, a cold chickpea salad, various relishes and chutneys and a rice pudding that is to die for. The naan is brought out fresh constantly and the basmati rice is fluffy. They’ve begun offering soups, usually a vegetable or lentil, but as a fan of Indian stews and soups, I wish that the soups were more, well, Indian.
There are at least 10 dishes being kept warm on the buffet, so if you are new to Indian food, this is a great way to get acquainted. My favorites are Saag Paneer (a pureed spinach with Indian cheese) and their okra dish. Seasoned with cumin, ginger and coriander, the okra is solid, not the sloppy joe consistency to which most restaurants reduce this odd vegetable. There is one dish that I have avoided for over a decade that is chicken in a creamy sauce. It tastes great, but the chicken is not deboned. It just kind of freaks me out. The pakoras are good, but not as good as Masala’s, and do not pass them up on the free drink that comes with the meal. The chai is divine, but take a minute to enjoy it after the meal.
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