I've made a conscious effort to broaden my horizons by seeking out Indian restaurants while I'm on the road. The food is generally fairly priced and there's a lot of it on your plate. During a trip to Chicago recently, I found an Indian restaurant in north suburban Niles - the Himalayan Restaurant and Bar. I decided to give that a shot one particular evening.
Unlike many of my colleagues who are well-versed on Indian food, I am still in the learning stages of what I like and don't like about the cuisine. My first encounter with Indian food over 20 years ago was not a pleasant experience and I stayed away from Indian restaurants like they were the plague. That was until my wife accidentally had Indian food one time with a friend of hers (they thought the sign said, "Italian" and not "Indian"), and after a couple outings with colleagues to Indian/Pakistani restaurants in Atlanta. (Click here for the link to previous Indian restaurants I've visited.) I decided that I liked some of the Indian cuisine that I've tried and wanted to have some more.
The Himalayan Restaurant and Bar opened in Niles in 2003. Partners Vivek Raj Kunwar and Kiran Byanjankar, along with Chef Bishnu Subedi, saw a need for Indian/Nepali food in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Subedi learned to cook Indian and Nepali cuisine in Kathmandu, Nepal. After moving to the United States in 1999, Subedi worked in a number of Indian restaurants in the Chicago area, first as a server, then as a chef. The partners opened a second restaurant in far west suburban Bloomingdale in 2008, and then followed up with a third location in far north suburban Gurnee.
The Niles location is located along Golf Road, near the intersection of Milwaukee Ave. in Niles (see map). It's set back in a strip mall and you have to do a little driving around to find the place. Actually, getting there from my hotel was sort of a chore as the power was still out in many sections of the north suburbs from a powerful storm that had hit the night before. Thankfully, the power was on at the Himalayan when I got there.
Entering the Himalayan, I found it to be similar to other Indian restaurants I've been in. The dining room is large, spacious and well-lit. Without some of the pictures on the wall, you may have thought it was more of an American-style family restaurant. I was seated at a table next to the wall and given a menu. A waitress soon came over to take my drink order. It had been a long day and I was ready for a cold beer. I ordered a tall bottle of Taj Mahal beer.
One of the nice things about the menu at the Himalayan Restaurant and Bar is that a number of items on the menu are designated as "kid friendly", meaning that children will usually find those dishes to be pleasing to their pallets. There are also a number of foods on the menu that are listed with a "G" which means they're good for groups or family style dining. And they also listed a "Spice-O-Meter" chart with one star being mild and three stars means you'll break a sweat.
Still being a neophyte when it comes to Indian cuisine, I was trying to remember some of the things that I'd tried in the past. I remember my colleague, Todd, talking about tandoori style food during our previous visits. Tandoors are clay ovens used to make breads at a high temperature. The first time tandoors were used to make food other than bread happened in the late 1940's in India when an Indian restaurant owner cooked seasoned chicken pieces in his tandoor. It became an instant hit. In fact, today, the original restaurant - Moti Mahal - is now a popular chain of restaurants in India.
Traditional tandoori chicken is marinated in curd and tandoori marsala sauce. It is usually much more spicy to the bite in Asia, but toned down considerably for Western tastes in the States. It is a deep reddish/orange in color, thanks to spices such as cayenne, chili powder and turmeric which are put on before cooking. The tandoori oven has to be red hot for the chicken to cook - up to 900F (480C) - helping seal in the juices of the chicken. Todd has told me that the chef has to watch the tandoori chicken to make sure it doesn't overcook. "30 seconds too long can make it dried out," he once told me.
I was interested in getting the tandoori chicken, but I also was interested in the chicken tikka - marinated chicken grilled and sauteed in a creamy onion tomato sauce. Chicken tikka is usually a safe bet when it comes to ordering Indian food for the uninitiated. I also took a quick glance at the chicken vindaloo, something I remember having - and liking - in previous visits to Indian restaurants. Chicken vindaloo is a dish with chicken chunks that are cooked in a creamy curry sauce. It's more spicy than chicken tikka, but I remember thinking that it wasn't all that spicy when I had it.
I decided upon getting the chicken tandoori. The waitress said, "Do you want a large order or a small order?"
Well, she had me there. I didn't know the difference. So, somewhat embarrassed, I blurted out, "Large!"
She said, "If you have any left over, you can take it home. Yes?" I also ordered some of the garlic naan bread - something I remembered as being REALLY good in previous visits.
A waiter came out with my beer and a small basket of flat bread, along with a couple bowls of an unknown sauce. The green sauce had a very strong herb taste to it and it was very good. The red sauce was a little spicy and I guessed that was some sort of a curry sauce. It wasn't overly spicy for me, but I can tolerate spicy flavors more than most people.
Not long after that, the garlic naan bread came out. Cooked in the tandoor oven, this stuff is about as good as it gets. Brushed in melted butter, the naan bread is light and fluffy. And the garlic! Wow! But the problem is that it's so good that you have to watch yourself if you're eating by yourself or you'll pig out on the bread and not be hungry when your meal shows up. Oh man, garlic naan is great!
Suddenly, the waitress brought out this huge plate of chicken tandoori. Six whole pieces of chicken - a couple cut in half - were staring back at me. Now I know what she was talking about when she said I could take some leftovers home. There was no way that I'd be able to eat all of the chicken on my plate.
The outer skin of the chicken had a nice little spice to it, nothing that I would call outrageously hot (I believe it was listed a two-star entree on the "Spice-O-Meter"). But it did help zip up the taste a bit. The tandoor also gave it a nice smoky, charred taste to the chicken. However, like my colleague Todd warned me, chicken tandoori can get overcooked, even if you leave it in the tandoor a few seconds too long. Unfortunately, the chicken was somewhat dried out and tough to chew. A couple of the pieces were good, but the majority of the chicken was overcooked. And that was too bad because the couple of pieces that weren't were pretty good.
I ended up getting a box for the rest of the chicken and took it with me back to the hotel. Thinking for a second before I walked in, I realized that even though I did have a refrigerator in my room, I knew there was no way I'd eat any more of this chicken. So I tossed it out in the garbage just outside the door. I don't like to waste food like that, but I have to say that it was one helluva bargain for all that chicken tandoori. The entree, itself, was $12.95. The garlic naan was $2.65. My Taj Mahal beer was a little expensive at $7.50 a bottle, but there was a lot of beer there, even though it wasn't all that great of a taste. It was a 22 oz. bottle. I ate a helluva lot for under $30 bucks and a tip.
OK, so chicken tandoori isn't something I'll probably order on my next visit to an Indian restaurant. As Todd told me the next day, "Yeah, it's tough to find really good chicken tandoori." I'm gonna stick to the cream sauce entrees in the future, I believe. And I'm sure the Himalayan Restaurant and Bar has some great chicken vindaloo, something I'll try on my next visit.