Last year, I had the good fortune of eating my way around Delhi, India, for a couple of days. Thankfully, my guide, Manjeet, was a fellow food lover — not at all shy about navigating the crowded, labyrinthine nooks and crannies of the old city in pursuit of vegetarian parathas, chicken tikka and samosas fried in hot oil while we watched.
Back home, I never imagined I’d find anything to compare to this. Then I discovered Kabab Express in Decatur.
After sampling this 10-month-old, family-owned restaurant’s Indian-Pakistani-style seekh kebabs, I knew I’d found a spot as authentic and satisfying as anything I encountered during my ramble around the north of India.
Situated in a Church Street shopping center anchored by a Patel Brothers supermarket, Kabab Express is an essential destination for lovers of the complex and wildly colorful food that is a staple of South Asian halal kitchens.
Here, beef, lamb, goat and chicken are king. If you are looking for vegetarian Indian, there are plenty of options in this same shopping center, which is home to Chat Patti Indian Vegetarian Restaurant and Gokul Sweets & Pure Veg. Restaurant.
But in this strip of Indian jewelry stores, bazaars, salons and halal butcher shops, Kabab Express is the place for solid chicken tikka (plain or rolled up in flatbread); delicious biryanis and kormas; thick, sweet mango lassis; and — hold me back — the so-called “Indo-Pak” kebabs.
Unlike the more familiar shish kebab, in which cubes of meat are threaded on skewers and grilled, this version calls for mixing minced meat with fragrant spices, molding it into sausage-shaped tubes around a skewer, and grilling. When done right, the meat sticks have a tender, juicy, melt-in-the-mouth quality that is unparalleled. And Kabab Express, a humble little establishment with a walk-up counter, a scattering of tables and a sky-blue ceiling painted with stars, nails it.
“I could eat it every night,” my worldly dining companion said one night. Together we had just inhaled a platter of the restaurant’s beef seekh kebabs, oohing and aahing and smacking our lips.
At $6.99, the dish — which comes with saffron-and-cardamom-scented basmati rice; slices of raw onion; a scoop of cucumber and tomato salad; mint sauce; and a wedge of lemon — has to be one of the best values around.
Though the lamb seekh kebabs are also quite good ($8.99), I prefer the beef. (Don’t do red meat? Then try the chicken.) In any case, you’ll find the kebabs, which over the centuries have journeyed from the Middle East to India to America, an elemental, soul-satisfying way to dine.
When placing your order, take note of the list of so-called “gravy” specials. If you like sopping your Indian stews with naan bread, these intensely flavorful concoctions will make you very happy.
Though I liked the gently prickly, turmeric-yellow Butter Chicken Gravy just fine, I had trouble pushing back the Shahi Mutton Korma. It may not be the prettiest dish in the Kabab Express repertoire, but it was the headiest thing I tried. The sloppy Joe texture made it perfect for scooping up with the warm, poofy naan — or spooning over the plate of fluffy basmati rice that comes on the side.
Among the chicken dishes, the Chicken 65, a battered-and-deep-fried classic that gets its bright-red sheen from a blast of chile peppers, was appealing and delicious, especially when dunked into the cooling raita accompaniment. Still, it can hardly rival the standard-setting version I fell in love with at Zyka, just across the street, lo so many years ago.
The Chicken Tikka Roll, a flatbread wrap overflowing with big chunks of the yogurt, ginger, garlic and spice-marinated bird, is just the thing for holding in your hand and eating on the run: good, cheap, filling. Like so much of the fare here, though, it’s aggressively spicy. Personally, I like my tikka sauce a bit more soothing and creamy.
That the vegetarian dishes are listed last among the specials gives you a sense of the hierarchy of proteins here.
We enjoyed the paneer tava: cubes of Indian cheese in a fiery-red, tandoori-like sauce that’s very naan-friendly. There was also a chickpea stew (kabuli chana), which we never got a chance to taste, and a dish of sauteed chile peppers, which the clerk seemed to think might incinerate our Western taste buds.
No alcohol is served at Kabab Express, just soft drinks, water and mango lassis. The lassis are lovely but can be too dense to travel up a straw. So maybe stick with agua, or pop open a can of ultra-limey Limca. If beer’s your thing, you’ve got the perfect argument for takeout.
Kabab Express, I’m happy to report, is a neighborhood gem. It may require you to use unwieldy plastic utensils and eat off Styrofoam plates. So what?
The food is fresh, made to order, and good for you: if you believe in a time-honored balanced diet of protein, grains, veggies.
Should my Indian tour guide, Manjeet, ever take me up on my invitation to visit, I’d probably want him to try our Southern fried chicken and collard greens first.
But if he ever got homesick, I know just where I’d take him.
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