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Spices of Life

TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Tucked in a small storefront on Fair Oaks Avenue, just off Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, All India Cafe may be difficult to spot from the road. But to strollers ambling by, the enticing scent of fresh-ground spices wafting out the door makes this casual little cafe hard to resist.

The chef-owner is Santokh Singh, former chef at Bombay Cafe in Santa Monica. From the small open kitchen, Singh is turning out vibrant homemade chutneys, crisp golden samosas, enticing Indian street snacks and dishes like Bombay chicken (poached in spices, then sauteed in mango powder and chile, so the flavor goes all the way to the bone) and lamb frankies (sort of an Indian burrito filled with a complexly spiced lamb masala). His bhel puri, a snack of puffed rice, potatoes, onions and crisp broken noodles tossed with chutneys and lime, is terrific--sour and hot and crisp all at the same time. I like the tikka masala, too, tender morsels of tandoor-cooked chicken in a sumptuous sauce of tomato and yogurt perfumed with ginger and fenugreek leaves. That dish alone is enough to make me want to eat my way through the rest of the menu.

For dessert, he makes a fabulous kulfi, Indian ice cream flavored with pistachios and cardamom, and a startlingly delicious fresh ginger ice cream. Oh, and a wonderful soupy rice pudding infused with green cardamom.

If only I lived a little closer.

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BE THERE

All India Cafe, 39 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (818) 440-0309. Open seven days for lunch and dinner. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Parking in lot next door. Appetizers $2.50-$4.95; entrees $5.95-$11.95; lunch specials $4.95-$5.50. Takeout and catering, too.


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