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The Find: Namastey India

The flavors of New Delhi come alive in a small restaurant tucked away in an ethnic grocery store in Buena Park, where the owner-chef prides himself on from-scratch recipes and freshly prepared dishes.

By C. Thi Nguyen, Special to the Los Angeles Times

May 26, 2011

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This is a lesson: Good food is hiding everywhere, and you might come across it when you least expect it. You just need to be open, willing and ready to seize the moment.

Namastey India looks like any Indian grocery, on a mostly empty stretch of a semi-industrial Buena Park mega-street. Inside stacks of Indian snacks and spice mixes, phone cards for sale and, occupying about a third of the space, a little restaurant: a steam table, some signs handwritten in marker, a few tables and a water cooler for you to get your own water. Family members wander between the kitchen, the back office and the grocery aisles. Regulars lounge at their tables and chatter with the cooks across the counter.

It smells right, but the steam table might make you a little suspicious. You order anyway, hoping for a miracle, and a miracle comes. The nice lady behind the counter fills up your Styrofoam tray, passes it over and then tells you sweetly to wait a few minutes, your bread is coming. In a few minutes, she appears from the kitchen and summons you back to the steam table. Your bread is ready.

The bread turns out to be insanely fresh roti: two brown flatbreads with mottles of sear and that dusty texture and the beautiful, delicate smell of bread fresh off the griddle. You take a bite; it's lovely, with a lively stretch and chew, a quiet sweetness and a subtle tang. "Whoa," you say, "did you just make this?"

"Of course," she says, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I just rolled out the dough and cooked it, just now. We always do."

This is the secret of Namastey, where the food tastes fresher and more vivid than any counter in the back of a grocery store has the right to. "Everything you eat comes out of our own kitchen, made from scratch, home-style," says owner and cook Ashish Pal. He grinds his spices fresh, he fries his snack foods fresh, and the kitchen makes every bit of bread to order.

The steam table itself yields up excellent goods, which may include, depending on the day, particularly luscious jackfruit curry or a creamy, sweet, ultra-dairy paneer tikka masala (fresh cheese in a creamy tomato sauce). But for some of the best food, game the menu and order the stuff that comes fresh out of the kitchen, like the paratha — stuffed flatbreads, carefully basted in butter as they cook — or the lovely fresh-fried samosas, filled with soft, moist potato and whole fried cumin seeds.

But happiest of all might be the chaat. Chaat is Indian street snack food — the Indian equivalent of a New York hot dog from a cart. It's usually a cold mixture of all sorts of delightful crunchy things — wheat wafers, puffed rice, crispy lentil bits, little bits of fried crunchy things — mixed with some combination of yogurt, chutney and raw vegetables. It's somewhere between a crunchy snack and a chopped salad.

Namastey's chaat is far punchier and fiercer than that of most other chaat places, especially if you talk the folks into giving it to you spicy, as it should be. The spice is because it's the Punjabi-style chaat from his native New Delhi, Pal says. "I wanted to do it authentic, do it right, do it the way it should be," he says. This is why he cooks his lentils for six hours, why he makes his own spice mixture fresh and puts far more care than he has to into his $6 steam table combos and $3 chaat platters, and why you can eat like a king (or at least like a beloved Indian grandchild) for well under a 10-spot.

Papdi chaat is a pile of flour crisps ("Made fresh right in the kitchen!" Pal says) topped with diced onions and chickpeas; covered with a thick layer of good fresh yogurt, vividly colored chutneys and a whole heaping pile of chopped cilantro; and then dusted with aromatic, fresh-ground masala powder. The result is cool, crispy, sweet, sour, minty, wet, pungent and searing all at once, like a hyper-aggressive breakfast cereal. It's more than a little addictive.

Also superb is their pani puri: little fried spheres of paper-thin flour crisp, which come prefilled with bits of potato and chickpea and streaks of chutney. You're given a small styrofoam cup of cold, spiced mint water; you crack open the spheres and fill them with the mint water. Then, acting quickly, you throw the whole affair into your mouth and crunch down for an exciting little explosion of mint and cold water. The mint water here is satisfyingly pungent: musky and spicy and zippy. Pal makes the mint water the way he learned back home: adding a load of masala mixture, some chiles and a whole lot of mint to the water, then keeping it in a closed jar for five days to properly condense.

Pal is particularly proud of his channa batura: spicy chickpeas, intensely gingery, served with a pile of freshly fried puffy bread. "It's the dish New Delhi is known for," he says, and he makes his chickpeas in the New Delhi style: with lots of garlic and a near-excruciating pile of ginger. "My customers tell me it's the best around here," he says proudly. "They say it's just like it is in New Delhi."

Namastey India

LOCATION: 7232 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park, (714) 522-1111

PRICES: Chaat, $2 to $3; stuffed breads, $3 to $4; veggie combo platter, $6; yogurt drinks, $2.

DETAILS: Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. Sodas and yogurt drinks. Lot parking.

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