Slow food, fast
If you read the online reviews of Saffron Tiger, on Paseo del Norte, you’d think going there is like rolling dice. It’s interesting how many people label the restaurant as an Indian version of Panda Express, and how this contingent is split over whether this is a good thing.
Comments like “cheaper than McDonalds, and tastes MUCH better” may be well-intended, but they hardly make me reach for my drool rag. And while I’m not much of a fast-foodie, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with getting your food seconds after you order it—especially when we’re talking about Indian food. One reason Indian food is often served buffet style is that it excels at being prepared in big batches and held warm. It’s fast in the sense that you can order and eat quickly, but slow in that it was prepared slowly.
As observed by the online crowd, the restaurant is laid out like an airport-style Chinese cafeteria. Typical plates are one-, two- or three-entrée combos with a side of fragrant yellow rice or naan bread. If anything about Saffron Tiger is a roll of the dice, it’s following the heard down the cafeteria line. Yes, Indian food can handle hanging out in low-heat purgatory better than most foods, but only to a point, and the customer has no way of knowing how long the food’s been there. My first visit left me lukewarm, but my opinion improved dramatically when I started ordering the 28-ounce entrées—the same options as in the buffet, but cooked fresh. There’s also a “catering menu” featuring the same larger, made-to-order options, plus a free side for every two entrées. About 10 minutes of advanced notice is required.
These versions are not only fresher than what’s in the cafeteria, but made in smaller quantities, thereby increasing the ratio of personal attention per bite.
Golden lentil soup is a standout. Also known as dal, this ubiquitous south Asian soup can be boring but healthy-tasting. The Saffron Tiger version is a kaleidoscope of flavors, including tangy, earthy, buttery and aromatic components, and just a touch of heat.
“Green beans coconut” is simple and good, and the beans are still crunchy when cooked fresh for you. The saag paneer—stewed greens (saag) and cubes of unmeltable cheese (paneer)—won’t let fans of this Indian classic down. Another vegetarian paneer dish, paneer tikka masala, bathes the cheese chunks in a rich tomato gravy.
The Saffron Tiger version is a kaleidoscope of flavors, including tangy, earthy, buttery and aromatic components, and just a touch of heat.
The goat curry—made with local, kosher meat—is as decadent as any dish you’ll find anywhere. Soft chunks of meat barely cling to bone, and the occasional attached piece of fat is so deliciously obscene you’ll want to avert your eyes and chew with your mouth closed. The brown gravy is full of disintegrated potatoes and the occasional green fleck of fresh herbs. “Chili chicken”—breaded chunks with bell peppers and Szechuan-style red chiles—tastes like really good American-style Chinese food.
Many of the dishes use cumin. Heat-wise, the food isn’t engineered to tear you any new ones—but if that’s what you’re after, the chutney bar has some very hot options. A house-made pico de gallo is my favorite, followed closely by the equally hot mint chutney. This free condiment bar also includes tart, tangy tamarind, a raita that tastes strongly of black pepper, and a red chile that bears a suspicious resemblance to Sriracha.
I'm not crazy about Saffron Tiger's "crispy cabbage," which tastes like uninspired Chinese stir-fry, and the coconut curry chicken doesn't have that complexity of flavor I expect from Indian food. Skip the Clayoven Pizza®, while you’re at it.
Of the side options, basmati rice fares better than naan bread. Although the nutty basmati fragrance hides behind cumin seeds and bay leaves, the flavor is good, and the peas tossed into the yellow rice are a nice touch.
The mango lassi is standard of Indian restaurants—that is, really effing good. Similar tasting but creamier and sturdier is the mango custard dessert. There's also homemade chocolate gelato and mango/passion fruit sorbet, and both are awesome.
If you’re looking for ambiance fit for a raja, Saffron Tiger is not your place. But don’t be stymied by fast-food stigma. Using time-honored Indian flavors, the kitchen is capable of greatness if you play the menu correctly.