The original India Palace on Water Street in Santa Fe is progenitor (and still my favorite) of a dynasty of very good Indian restaurants here in the state. Several India Palaces have sprung up (there's one at Wyoming and Montgomery) and share the same name, but because of a royal family feud, they are no longer all related to the original. Don't ask; it's very complicated, not unlike most families with palaces.
Guests here are greeted in a flurry of genteel bows and welcomes, by a welcoming contingent of the professional, friendly, well dressed, all-male dining room staff. They look like groomsmen in their charcoal pants and vests, with crisp white shirts and shiny silver ties. Even with a self-serve buffet there is a real presence of service here; hot chai is refilled automatically, plates cleared swiftly, and the servers check in just often enough to make sure any needs are met.
The décor is pleasant and planned. Deep burgundy carpet and comfortable high-backed chairs surround simple faux granite tables. A crystal mini chandelier dangles from the slightly-too-low ceiling; sparkling wall sconces continue the theme. On the walls are maharajahs astride well-dressed elephants and lines of sari-clad beauties carrying water jugs on their heads. Paintings on black velvet are prominent above the buffet line, but you'll find no hidden Elvis images among the ox and camel carts.
India Palace's daily lunch buffet is a rotating feast that always includes a variety of meat, fish and vegetable dishes, with bread, side dishes and desserts. It will set you back $6.95 on weekdays. The $7.95 weekend buffet includes soup and a yummy flatbread called dosa.
Most of the buffet dishes that I tried on two visits were quite good. In fact, the butter chicken was excellent. It's made with succulent dark meat, tandoori chicken in a buttery sauce (accent on butter) with tomato and spices. The tandoor oven, a clay oven fired with charcoal, imparts a distinct smoky flavor while keeping the meat moist. Vindaloo on an Indian menu means hot. These curries are usually so spicy they drench my brow or give me the hiccups, but not so here. The chicken vindaloo offered on the lunch buffet was tasty but not fiery. I later learned from the manager that the spicing of dishes on the buffet is deliberately mild for the masses, but that I could have sent my vindaloo chicken back to the kitchen to be “vindalooed” with more chile heat.
Bhuna gosht was a solid hit, featuring tender chunks of beef in a ginger-laden garam masala sauce. There were several tasty vegetable dishes as well, including a vegetable curry. Saag paneer—a creamy concoction of spinach and cubes of homemade cheese—was quite tasty but a little soggy; to be fair, we were there at the very end of lunch, so the paneer had been sitting there for a while.
The tandoor oven-baked bread flecked with small pieces of onion, called onion naan, was delicious and was replenished often so it didn't get cold or dried out. A mixed iceberg lettuce salad, raita and a choice of chutneys are also included with the buffet. If you haven't had it, raita is a refreshing palate cleanser made with grated cucumbers in a tangy yogurt sauce. The chutneys unfortunately were not remarkable. The mint chutney was spiced with pickled jalapeños, and the tamarind chutney seemed a bit flat and thin. The desserts made up for the chutneys though. Don't miss the kheer, a creamy rice pudding with almonds or the tasty mango cream, a flavorful custard laden with chunks of mango.
Prices get higher if you decide to order from the regular menu instead of the buffet. Vegetable main dishes start from $7.95 and meat and seafood from $9.95 to $18.95. Since breads, chutney and side dishes are a la carte, it can be expensive if you get carried away ordering. Consider instead one of the several combination dinners from $15.95 per person; each one includes a soup, several entrées, side dishes and dessert at a considerable savings. Or go with a big group and share a few different things.
The wine list is pretty basic and offers no real surprises. House wines by the glass include Fetzer Cabernet ($6) and an Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio ($5). There is a nice selection of beers to choose from, which is good because I think beer goes better with Indian food anyway. There are large bottles of Taj Mahal Lager ($6.50) Maharaja Indian Pilsner ($4) and Sam Adams Pale Ale ($3.50) to name a few.
Make a pilgrimage for lunch to the new Indian Palace. You'll be pampered by a top notch staff and enjoy one of the better Northern Indian style buffets in town.
India Palace; 10701 Coors NW, Suite 23; 898-4188; lunch buffet 11:30 a.m. -2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5 p.m. –1 a.m. daily; major credit cards accepted; price range: inexpensive to moderate