Simi Valley isn’t known for its restaurants. Food snobs on Chow.com, a message board website for culinary enthusiasts, refer to the distant suburb as “a culinary wasteland” and “a real down and dirty low class locale.” Another commenter moans, “My co-workers and I are stuck in Simi Valley for a few months on our latest project. There seems to be nothing but fast food, chain restaurants and disappointments out here.”
Those in the know who come to the boards seeking advice attempt to avoid incurring the wrath of those who wouldn’t be caught dead at a TGI Friday’s by timidly labeling their threads, “decent sushi in Simi?” and “Simi Valley chow?” After all, who knows what kind of ostracism could result from associating your screen name with an opinion that there is good food to be had in Simi?
There’s no question that it’s easy to get spoiled dining in Los Angeles, and that it’s best to practice culinary relativism when grubbing in Simi if you’re not a native. Pretend like you’re in the Midwest, for example, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
Chicken tikka masala
Take Indian Haweli. Its first strike might be that a fair number of Simi residents probably shut down as soon as they get to the second, unfamiliar word in the restaurant’s title—at best, they might call it “Indian Hawaii.”
Its second strike might be that it’s located in a strip mall next to a bait and tackle shop and a sewing machine and vacuum store. Of course, anyone who has been dining in and around Los Angeles for more than a year knows better than to rule out a place based on this characteristic. Just think of all the celebs who dine at Zagat-acclaimed Hamasaku in the corner of a two-story strip mall in West LA (and what is West LA if not a series of strip malls?).
Those who can overlook the restaurant’s ragged edges, though, like the institutional acoustic ceiling, the bumped and bruised chairs, the dorm-style plastic tube lights and the buttercup yellow walls that look like they were painted by a mildly industrious yet slightly lazy teenager will not find much else to complain about at this restaurant.
For starters, there is no leathery-skinned, bleached-blond woman with the body of a 12-year-old talking too loudly about her last audition at the table six inches away from yours, because the restaurant’s 12 tables are not arranged to maximize profit per square foot so much as to create a serene dining experience (and besides, that woman is a safe 30 miles away at Urth Caffe in West Hollywood). Cheery yellow and orange panels further separate each table from the ones behind and in front of it.
Among the restaurant’s best dishes are the aloo gobi, a vegetarian dish of tender, spiced cauliflower and potato—at least, it’s supposed to have potato—and the lamb vindaloo, succulent meat and potatoes sauced in an earthy brown medley of spices. All dishes can be ordered mild, medium or spicy, and when it comes to heat, the cooks mean business (even if you don’t appear to be Indian).
The lunch buffet, offered seven days a week, is a steal at $6.99. Included are six entrees, plain and saffron-infused basmati rice, and a salad of lettuce, tomato and onion, plus raita, mint and tamarind chutneys, two kinds of dessert and fresh naan. While the naan is delivered straight from kitchen to table, the rest of the spread can suffer from the common buffet problem of sitting out too long and not being hot enough. Those who arrive at 11:30 when the buffet starts won’t have experience problem, though.
There’s nothing new on Indian Haweli’s menu (or the TV in the front corner, which shows Bollywood movies), but then, when is an Indian restaurant’s menu ever unpredictable? All the staples are there, from samosas and vindaloos to kormas and masalas. To their detriment, many of the dishes belong to the creamy school of Indian cooking—that means it’s possible to get full just by looking at the matar paneer, a vegetarian dish of squishy, lightly fried cubes of theoretically homemade cheese accompanied by bright green peas that blink from beneath a lush orange sauce flecked with spices.
Adjacent to the restaurant is a small Indian grocery store. It's only three aisles across with a few convenience-store variety refrigerator and freezer cases, but the selection is almost comparable to an India's Sweets and Spices (an LA chain offering satisfying meals, cavity-inducing confections, and groceries)—or even, with its bounty of crispy Indian snack foods and ready-to-make dessert mixes, a store in Artesia’s Little India. Such a store would be a gem just about anywhere, but it's an especially welcome surprise in Simi.
Along with a plethora of spices and canisters of ghee (clarified butter) for patrons who want to make Indian food from scratch, there are Pillsbury samosas and frozen paneer for the faux home cook.
The quality and meager selection of the store’s sweets leaves something to be desired, though—their subdued flavor and a nearby box suggest that they may not be homemade. It doesn't help that they're kept in a display case—those always seems to leave food tasting stale and slightly off.
The sweets on the restaurant’s dessert menu, however, are so moist they seem like they were made to order, though that’s impossible given the time-consuming preparation of most Indian desserts. Try the ras malai, a delicate ricotta cake bathed in a sweet, cardamom- and pistachio-laced milk.
Despite its imperfections, Indian Haweli is an oasis in the supposed culinary desert, a restaurant where one can enjoy mostly solid food in a tranquil, crowd-free atmosphere at reasonable prices, where there’s no risk that the man at the table next to yours will be sitting close enough to accidentally sample your dish and where the waiters aren’t running on Red Bull or wearing 35 pieces of flair.
1750 E. Los Angeles Ave.
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Indian Haweli website