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What's Cookin' Behind the Curtain - A Window into Indian Food

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Every Friday, LAist is taking you on a trip down to Orange County to uncover the unique dining experiences that await adventurous eaters willing to explore beyond the county line.

As much as I love fine dining, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with the comfort foods that I find at local hideaways that five-star restaurants can’t provide. While these local eateries will never make a Michelin guide, they possess a reliable meal, a distinct atmosphere, and the promise that they’ll never be overrun by trendy crowds and changing tastes. They’re the places that I identify with pride as one of “my spots”, a secret that only a select group of people know about.

Which gets me to this week’s restaurant: Bukhara Cuisine of India in Huntington Beach.

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Bukhara is a classic neighborhood hole-in-the-wall restaurant that wins few points for ambience and service, but scores big on charm and meal quality. Specializing in Mughlai-style cuisine (ancient Northern Indian), Bukhara probably isn’t going to be the best Indian food you’ve ever had. As Ali Miller pointed out in Wednesday’s review of Electric Karma in Hollywood, LA is a bit lacking when it comes to high quality Indian cuisine. So while your meal may not transport you back to Delhi, you will get reasonably-priced good-quality food in a simple, no-frills environment.

Bukhara is a located in a strip mall across the street from the two-year old Bella Terra entertainment center. It is an interesting dichotomy to see the big megaplex theater and new stores and restaurants of Bella Terra opposite the rundown storefronts where Bukhara sits, tucked between a Subway and a Cingular Wireless outlet.

The inside of the restaurant looks just as dated as the outside. The décor looks like it was pulled from a vintage thrift store, except that I’m pretty sure that they’ve simply haven’t replaced it in the last 25 years. The tablecloths, seats, and wallpaper are a combination of a garish sea green and salmon, and the chandelier in the center of the restaurant only has about half of its bulbs working.

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But if you can get over the initial shock to your eyes, you can enjoy the real charm of Bukhara. The restaurant is tiny, only accommodating about ten tables, and you can eavesdrop on pretty much any conversation, which may be a variety of topics given the motley crew of patrons that stop by. The best feature of the restaurant is the window in the middle of the restaurant that enables you to look into the small kitchen where the two chefs are busy at work. You can watch the chefs roll out paratha or skewer up big chunks of marinated chicken and lamb and cook them in the tandoor. Think of it kinda like going to Krispy Kreme, except without the free samples and conveyor belt.

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Because everything is truly made to order, the dishes taste fresh and sharply seasoned. The menu says its tandoori dishes are served “sizzling hot on a bed of sautéed onions, bell peppers, and lemon”, which is no exaggeration since the food is literally brought straight from the oven. The naan is always piping hot (and I love me some naan). On my last trip, I started off with some vegetable pakoras (fritters), which were crisp, but not too greasy or heavy. I also gorged on an order of chicken saag (chicken cooked in cream spinach) and basmati rice. The big chunks of chicken were moist and tender, seasoned with garlic and cumin, while the creamed spinach was the hearty filler that nearly put me to sleep about an hour after I finished eating.

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As far as menu items are concerned, Bukhara has the requisite selection of tandoori dishes and various vegetable paneer and masala dishes. Bukhara also offers a wide variety of lamb entrees, though I can’t vouch for those since I tend to avoid eating our fleeced friends. The house specialties include the standard chicken tikka masala, as well sliced lamb served in a green curry (lamb pasada) or ground lamb with onion gravy (keema curry).

Unlike some of the nicer Indian restaurants in LA which will cost you a pretty penny, the dishes at Bukhara are generally priced between $9 and $14 for reasonable sized portions. Bukhara also offers a daily lunch buffet for $8.95 ($10.95 on Sundays with champagne), and even does catering for its more conventional dishes. It’s fair to assume the moderate prices you pay reflect a discount for the lack of restaurant amenities. But that’s what makes it fun. I’d be more than happy to pay an extra dollar per dish for the food, but then I’d have to stop going there once it turned into just another Indian restaurant.

Bukhara Cuisine of India
7594 Edinger Ave.
Huntington Beach, CA 92647