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Delicious Spree LA to Z...D is for Dhaba Cuisine of India

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LAist is going on a delicious spree around LA from A to Z. Today, D is for Dhaba Cuisine of India.

Dhaba Cuisine of India is on Main Street in Santa Monica, and because it’s been around longer than some of us have been on earth, it now only has to rely on long-time loyal locals. We see the familiar yellow, turquoise, and pink painted elephant sign each time we drive down Main Street to go somewhere else, and have been telling ourselves that we will try it. It has to be good if it’s been around for 33 years without any advertising.

Though the address says Main Street, and it looks like there’s a door, the main entrance is actually on the cross-street Bicknell, through Dhaba’s back patio. About a third of the patio is open air, and the other two thirds are enclosed with wall and ceiling trellises that drip with foliage, fuschia bougainvillea and tiny white Christmas lights. It feels very much like a romantic jungle hideaway. The inside room is small, and though it looks cozy and comfortable, we took a seat on the patio to enjoy the summer evening.

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The wine list at Dhaba offers "chardonnay," "pinot grigio," "cabernet," and "merlot" for $5.75 a glass, or $20 for a bottle. At least it wasn't just "red" or "white." We picked a little of both.

The dinner menu is pretty straight-forward, but like the suspicious absence of Indian people in the restaurant, there is a suspicious presence of salads on the menu. We're pretty sure that organic baby greens with balsamic vinaigrette are not authentic Indian fare, even if it has tandoori salmon or shrimp on it, but it's nice to know that we can come to Dhaba with friends who are less enthused about Indian as we are, and still be able to enjoy a meal.

The naan was a little too thin, a little too chewy, as if it had been pulled off the oven about twenty seconds too early, and it was already cut into pieces. Ah well, that takes care of the problem of sharing germs.

We just can't start an Indian meal without a samosa. Dhaba's samosas are perfect, equilateral triangles plump with potatoes, peas, and carrots, and beautifully wrapped in thin pastry. They're deep fried to a perfect, crisp tan. They were good, better doused with some of the sticky sweet tamarind chutney, but missing a little bit of flavor. We weren't expecting heat, but a little more spice would have been nice.

Chicken tikka masala came out in the typically Indian oblong dish, and like all the other serving plates at Dhaba, shiny silver. They were large pieces of chicken breast, so it was somewhat dry, especially with only a scant amount of deep, dark sauce that was fairly thick and bumpy. It didn't look anything like the chicken tikka masala we were used to, that is much more gravy that is also smoother and creamier.

The most disappointing part was that though the chicken tikka masala had spice flavor, it had almost no spice heat. We had asked for spicy, the server said certainly, but it wasn't spicy at all. We asked for hot sauce. The server said they didn't have any, but could bring out some chopped chiles. That would be fine. It was about a quarter cup of chopped jalapenos, that unfortunately, we finished within the first ten minutes of our meal.

Cauliflower is a favorite vegetable, and if it were up to us, we would have ordered gobi aloo sans aloo. But that's not normal, and though we weren't necessarily going for normal during this dinner, we just asked the server for a half order of the gobi aloo, heavy on the gobi. The other half order was going to saag paneer, sans paneer, but with tofu. Does that make us seem high-maintenance?

An order of vegetables is $9.50. A half order is $5.50, which sounds like a pretty good deal, until you see how big the order is. Even at $5.50, the half order is tiny. Gobi aloo came out in what looked like the one cup measure from my metal measuring cups. There were probably two pieces of potato, which meant they heeded my request for light on the aloo, but about three florets of cauliflower. Doubling that to a full order would still be pretty small for $9.50. We were disappointed, because the gobi aloo was pretty tasty and we would have loved to have eaten more than two bites.

Tofu saag was very good, but didn't have the deepness that we normally get from spinach that tastes like it's been steeping in spices for a long time. The tofu cubes felt healthier than cheese, of course, but they too had not been cooked long enough in the spices. They were a little bland.

We didn't really need to prolong dinner with dessert, especially since Dhaba doesn't have our favorite, gulab jamun. Luckily, the homemade mango ice cream was very good. Unlike many other mango ice creams and sorbets that have only a faint flavor of the fruit, this one was smooth and creamy ice cream with a fairly strong taste of mango.

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The food alone might have been three strikes, with dry chicken in the tikka masala, teeny tiny portions, somewhat flat, flavorless tofu saag, and most importantly, no fire. But we realize that one of Dhaba's distinguishing points is that it leans toward healthy Indian with all white meat in the chicken tikka masala, portion control, and minimal fat in some of the vegetable preparations with tofu. If we keep that in mind, and make sure to ask for a whole bowl of chopped green chiles, then Dhaba gets a second date.

Dhaba Cuisine of India
2104 Main Street at Bicknell
Santa Monica, CA 90405
(310) 399-9452