There are rules of thumb for hunting hidden culinary greatness in this town. One of them is to avoid steam tables. Another is to avoid culturally profligate fast food -- stands that promise the best burritos, hamburgers, pastrami and gyros in town. But sometimes you just have to trust your instincts and your nose and follow that smell, and to heck with all the rules.
Only then will you find Taurat Tandoori, on the edge of Koreatown. The banners outside the restaurant advertise not only its halal Indian-Bangladeshi menu but also halal Chinese, hamburgers and, remarkably, Korean BBQ -- and a billiards table, free for customers only.
Inside, there's a steam table full of curries and dals.
But any worries these signs might generate must fall to the evidence of pure taste: Taurat is a true, uncut hunk of Islamic Indian glory.
The place is half halal meat market and half local hangout. Neighborhood kids wander in, turn on a Bollywood action movie, shoot some pool and argue about cars. Somebody you thought was a customer will get up from a meal and help bring out your food.
The walls are painted a bright, fresh orange and covered with enormous butterflies. Some of the tables are underneath faux gazebos, and an arrangement of cut tree branches hangs from the ceiling, which suggests that you are not, in fact, in a strip mall but instead outdoors, at a Bangladeshi family garden party.
There's only one copy of the menu, and it sometimes gets lost. You can order off it all day long; anything not already on the steam table gets made fresh.
If it's your first time, ordering is easy: Get the goat. Goat is the heart of the Taurat experience -- the restaurant has some of the sweetest, most tender goat in town.
Goat curry features big bone-in hunks of it, sitting in a bowl of glowing orange liquid. The liquid is the essence of goat, extracted into a buttery broth and mixed with a cardamom-intense spice paste. It's glorious; there are frequently cross-table fencing matches with hunks of fresh nan for the last savory driblet of goat sauce.
Taurat may be a casual place, but owner Mohammed Hossain is fastidious, ensuring the freshness and quality of his meat by personally buying and slaughtering all his own goat, lamb and beef, to strict halal standards, meaning he follows the dietary practices required by Islamic law. The meat must be fresh, so Hossain makes regular trips to Fresno's stockyards. And it must be butchered properly, which is why he does it himself.
Goat biryani is magical, a stripped-down dish of goat curry, rice and butter, melded into one. The taste of good butter permeates every bite. The addition of rice expands the goat flavor. Like a drop of water in a glass of bourbon, a little dilution opens up the intense, concentrated flavors and makes them bloom.
Goat korma is the loveliest and quietest of the gang -- a lush curry, full of the gentle sweetness of fresh cream soaking into the delicious goat hunks. Little hidden sprinkles of fried, caramelized onion add a surprising bit of extra-sweet crunch to the lushness.
Hossain and his wife, Aliza, are from Bangladesh. They own the place together and, Mohammed says proudly, do all the cooking themselves. Mohammed is in charge of the tandoori and the meat; Aliza does the curries. Their cooking is full of the jolt of raw ginger, the bite of pepper.
Hot, hot vindaloo
Chief among these is the intense vindaloo seekh kebab. You may have to do some work even getting the dish; Mohammed may repeatedly warn you about its heat and give it to you only if you're really determined. It's gorgeous -- long, red-pink rolls of dense, heavily spiced ground beef, on a sizzling cast-iron platter. Bits of herb and charred onion cling to the outside of the kebab.
Surprisingly large hunks of hot green chile lurk in the meat. But it isn't just for the sake of macho posturing; this is a kebab made out of love for the taste of chiles. The ground beef is almost a base, designed to support the taste of fresh chile. Douse it in mint chutney and roll it in fluffy fresh nan, for balance. It comes with a salad, which you'll need to cool the burn.