Tandoor is the Night
What does “authenticity” mean in an Indian restaurant? You’ll find some of the hottest food in the world at truly dreadful British-Indian places (chile heat can’t be the answer), and any half-serious health food restaurant features more kinds of pulses in its loaves than you’ll find on a good Indian menu (weird lentils aren’t the answer, either).
The handful of regional Indian restaurants within a couple of minutes of Artesia’s Little India are pretty much authentic by definition--if you’re serving, say, the only Gujarati-style dishes in an area populated by Gujaratis, you may as well remind your customers of home. But even on Artesia’s Pioneer Boulevard, perhaps the one street in America where nobody looks twice at a mustachioed man in a flaming-red turban, most restaurants try to span all of India in one menu, with a rather heavy emphasis on Punjabi-style tandoori cooking. You can call it Subcontinental Cuisine.
Ashoka the Great, in the heart of Little India, has the same Punjabi-inflected menu as almost every other Indian restaurant in California, tandoori chicken and garlic naan , curried cauliflower, the spinach dish saag paneer. But unlike most other tandoori restaurants, such as the famous Westside place that lightens its food into blandness, or the highly touted Hollywood restaurant in which every dish seems to have been sugared with great doses of tamarind chutney, Ashoka seems to deliver the goods.
Perhaps authenticity requires the freedom to use as much of the powerfully stinky spice asafoetida as the cook thinks a dish needs, to go a little heavy on the ghee , to use only as much sweetening as is strictly necessary. At Ashoka, even the lacy taco-size crackers called pappadum are laced with seeds and aromatics, and the cool Indian yogurt raita is so strongly flavored with exotic spice that at first encounter, somebody not used to the stuff might think it was spoiled: It’s delicious, actually. The bright-red pickled carrot sticks are almost crunchy with pungent black mustard seed.
You might want to skip most of the appetizers here, grizzled little fritters of onion, cauliflower or chicken that all seem to taste the same. The masala dosa , a crisp pancake as thin as parchment, rolled around a filling of curried potatoes and served with a lentil stew, is fine, though you’ll find a half-dozen tastier versions within a few blocks walk.
This is where to come for tandoori dishes: garlicky naan bread and potato-stuffed paratha , sure, but mostly the skinless chicken legs and fish kebabs and minced-lamb sausages marinated in yogurt and spices, flash-cooked in a ultra-hot clay oven, and served sizzling on a bed of onions on a heated steel platter. Mediocre tandoori , like bad barbecue, can still be pretty good, but Ashoka’s brand is wonderful, crisped at the edges and fragrant with spice, smoky, slightly tart, dyed to the bone the peculiar hue Frank Lloyd Wright used to call Cherokee Red. For this tandoori chicken, it’s worth a long drive across town.
The curries are what you expect, more or less: ferocious, vinegary vindaloos of chicken and of lamb; the soothing, creamy chicken dish murg korma , with cashews; shrimp saag , in a creamy puree of spinach. Karachi chicken has the focused, gingery spice of a Muslim curry.
And you’ll find all the usual vegetable dishes done with a bit of panache: a locally famous bhindi masala , curried okra, stewed with tomatoes and chiles; an excellent version of the Punjabi dish matar paneer , homemade cheese sauteed with peas; a nice take on navratan korma , cauliflower and potatoes and such cooked with spices and cream, a bit leaner, less luxurious than some but also better balanced.
Ashoka the Great has the usual sort of syruped boiled milk whatevers and puddingy things for dessert, but you may as well do as the Indians do after dinner, and stroll up the block to Standard Sweets for a piece of the shop’s splendid silver-gilded carrot halvah and a cup of masala tea. It’s the Little India equivalent of walking around the corner for espresso and cannoli after a scungilli dinner on Mulberry Street.
What to Get
Tandoori chicken, navratan korma, bhindi masala.
Where to Go
Ashoka the Great, 18614 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (310) 809-4229. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine. Street parking. Take-out. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $17-$24.