One measure of a restaurant’s appeal is the distance people are willing to travel to be there. Restaurateurs from Hawaii Kai to Kailua will proudly proclaim that people drive in from as far away as Waianae and Pearl City to eat at their establishments.
I get Waianae. It’s about as far as one can drive from the East side. But Pearl City? There are points farther west. People there must love to drive, or maybe they feel there’s a shortage of options in the land of strip malls and fast food.
The opening of Tandoori Corner in the Waimalu Shopping Center may give them one reason to stay a little closer to home. It’s a hole-in-the-wall, near Kapiolani Coffee Shop, serving one of the world’s most exotic cuisines, from the faraway Himalayas. That’s just one more indication the world is shrinking, though I have a feeling the little restaurant will be right at home here.
That’s not to say opening hasn’t been a bit rocky.
I found the restaurant through its Twitter feeds and was excited by the prospect of more Nepali cuisine. Even so, half the time the tweets dwelled on smoothies, so much so that I wondered if I was mistaken about the restaurant, and that it was really a smoothie shop.
Well, it’s a little of both, and while that shouldn’t be a problem — what is a lassi, after all, but a kind of smoothie? — it’s obvious that Tandoori Corner wasn’t initially set up to be the kind of restaurant it needs to be.
The owners’ original vision was to open a simple smoothie shop, but it just so happens that one of the partners’ brothers-in-law is Suman Basnet of Himalayan Kitchen in Kaimuki, who thought it would be great to have a satellite restaurant on the Leeward side.
It is a good idea, but the execution may leave diners wanting. Or not. Upon exiting, one guy asked me how it was, and I mentioned the food was decent but talked about the slow service, with a warning to wait a month for them to work out the kinks.
I expected to hear disappointment and resignation, but this guy was cheerful and upbeat, saying, "Oh, well, something different is good."
And that is the aim, as Tandoori Corner’s owners said, "to bring a new flavor to Pearl City."
The menu is small, but there’s enough on it to merit a handful of trips before exhausting its combinations. For now, you can usually find about six to eight entree choices, with another four vegetarian dishes available as side orders on combination plates.
For now, food is being prepared at Himalayan Kitchen and brought in, ready to serve. You’d think that would be a no-brainer, but it appears to be an arduous task for two guys getting acquainted with the world of tikkas and vindaloos. What should take a minute to put on the plate takes closer to 15. I suggest they take a trip to Komala Curry House or any cafeteria for lessons in set-up and efficiency.
For now, the food represents a simplified, stripped-down version of what’s available in Kaimuki. Dishes will be familiar to anyone who loves the cuisine of India, which borders Nepal. Curry-style dishes are subject to change daily, but some of the basics include tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala, lamb curry and a vegetarian curry.
Right now you’ll find more substance with chicken or veggies than the lamb. I love the rich complexity of the lamb curry, but on the day I visited, there was more curry than lamb. I was hopeful about the three bumps sticking out from the curry, but there was actually only one inch-size cube of meat. The other two bumps were diced potatoes.
The chicken tikka masala is also tasty, marked by a velvety tomato-cream sauce. It’s probably too mild for those who appreciate the variety of spices that give Nepali/Indian cuisine its characteristic depth of flavor.
One of the most interesting dishes was a Kathmandu "chili," a Sherpa-style chili comprising onions, bell pepper and tomatoes stirred with a deep-fried spice-flour mixture that gives it a unique texture. The chill factor was surprising at first, but you’ll adjust.
You can get these as a single entree at $9.95 to $11.95, or as a thali (combination plate) at $11.95 to $14.25 with two vegetarian side selections. The side dishes include saag chana, a smooth puree of spinach and garbanzo beans; chana aloo, a mild dish of garbanzo beans and potatoes with a touch of tomato sauce; or yellow lentils with ginger and mild spices.
Served on a Styrofoam tray, it doesn’t look like much food, but turns out to be quite filling. Maybe it’s those garbanzos and lentils expanding in your tummy.
If you do need more, there are also delicious samosas filled with curried potatoes and peas and served with a mint-cilantro dipping sauce spiked with chili pepper. Also available to accompany your curries are papadams and naan bread, both plain and coated with garlic.
I was less enthused about the tandoori chicken, which did taste as if it had been made a day before and reheated. There are plans to install a tandoor on the premises, one of many adjustments in the works. Patience may pay off in the long run for those willing to wait for the restaurant to hit its stride.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.