In spite of thinking that it was impossible to do better than Annapurna, which I had the joy of trying last weekend, I felt it necessary to continue my Indian food research, perhaps in search of something equally good yet different. 85 miles, 2 hours of driving, 5 gallons of premium gas, 1 parking ticket, 3 grocery stores, 2 restaurants, and $130 later, I am here to report to you the results of this weekend's adventures in Indian food.
Friday night I went to Ambala Dhaba, which serves homestyle northern Indian food. This restaurant originated in Artesia, but I went to the Westwood location.
Some Google research for you: A dhaba is a small open eating place on the road side offering inexpensive Punjabi dishes. Punjabi (sometimes spelled Panjabi) is the language of the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan, where the city of Ambala is located.
As an adjective, the word "punjabi" qualifies anything or anyone that is related to either Punjab or the Punjabi language, such as the speakers of Punjabi, inhabitants of Punjab or the Punjabi cuisine of the region (northwestern India).
My immediate reaction to Ambala Dhaba was that I liked it. It actually has atmosphere, unlike pretty much every other restaurant I have dined at recently. The lighting is low but not too low, the tables and chairs are made of a decorative wrought iron, and there is some kind of straw hut type thing going on inside. And it was so pleasantly warm when I stepped inside from the crisp night air. I was also excited about the menu, which had a good selection of every category of dishes (appetizers, breads, meat dishes, vegetarian dishes, drinks, desserts. . . you get the picture).
Unfortunately, I was less excited when I took a bite of my samosa. The potato filling was lacking something--spices, for example. The samosa was served in mint and tamarind chutney, which I did not approve of for two reasons: 1. I will decide if I want chutney on my samosa or not, thank you and 2. the samosa should have been able to stand alone without needing chutney for flavoring.
Samosa bathed in mint and tamarind chutney
The entrees did not excite me much more, though they were pretty good. My friend had the chicken tikka masala, which I personally don't count as Indian food, since it isn't an authentic dish, but rather one that originated in the 1960's due to British influence. I'd never actually tried it before, and I thought it was pretty good. The chicken was moist, and the dish had a full spiced flavor. The sauce was intensely tomatoey, in a good way, although I think it was something else and not tomato that made it taste so intense. Still, whatever that ingredient was, it highlighted the tomato flavor. I thought the dish could have been a tad hotter, but my friend actually thought it was too hot. Alas, I have been eating spicy food all my life and probably have an above-average tolerance for heat.
I had the mattar paneer, which is generally one of my favorite dishes, though it isn't always made the same way. Sometimes it's creamy, and sometimes it's not. It's also a dish I know how to make at home (the recipe I use is not creamy). It was not creamy here, and tasted quite similar to my recipe, which lead me to think that Ambala Dhaba's recipe was very authentic, because my cookbook is very authentic. However, since it didn't taste different from my recipe, I wasn't all that excited about it, and it could have been hotter. Also, the portions were small and rice was not included (nor were we asked if we wanted a side of rice).
Chicken tikka masala (back) and mattar paneer (front)
I enjoyed the naan and mint chutney thoroughly, but the tamarind chutney was watery and not spicy at all. Also, they only served carrot pickles, which I think are the least exciting of the pickles, as they don't offer the wonderful flavor explosion that you get with, say, a lemon or mango pickle.
I decided against dessert after being relatively unimpressed with the rest of my food. In spite of my criticism though, this is some of the better Indian food I've had in LA. However, I've had a lot of mediocre Indian food in LA, so maybe that's not saying much. I might eat here again, because I liked the atmosphere, the naan, and the mint chutney, and because the menu is extensive. Maybe I'm just over mattar paneer. One drawback to the otherwise lovely atmosphere is the blender noises when the lassis are being prepared (shouldn't the blender go in the kitchen, where we can't hear it?) and not-too-friendly service.
I chose Ambala Dhaba based on a recommendation on Chowhound that it was the most authentic Indian food on the Westside. Getindian.net, however, had a review of this place saying that the food was inedible. I don't agree with that, but found the opinion interesting. The LA Weekly said, ". . .Ambala Dhaba is an outpost of the Punjab, a branch of a restaurant noted on Artesia’s Little India strip for its fiery goat curries and the boiled-milk ice cream called kulfi. It’s probably the only thing resembling traditional Indian food on the Westside. Ambala Dhaba exemplifies the time-honored side of meaty northern Indian cooking: basic, direct food almost Islamic in attitude, Pakistani in intensity of flavor, but wholly Indian in its attention to fresh vegetables, crunchy snacks, and breads." Maybe they send all the good chefs to the Artesia branch, or maybe they serve blander versions of the same food
For other Indian food options (mostly on the Westside), check out my quick summary.
Homestyle Indian Food
1781 Westwood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90024
15% discount with KCRW card (as of this writing)