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CHEAP EATS

Inman Square Indian imports authenticity

Email|Print| Text size + By Sheryl Julian
April 22, 2004

This is the first thing you'll ask yourself when you see the crowds of people waiting at the counter and in line, and more customers on a bench outside: Is there something they know that I don't?

Yes, there is. Punjabi Dhaba, which bills itself as an "Indian roadside cafe," is fun, cheap, and a hoot. Add terrific food, and you have all the reasons why lines form. You order at the counter, wait until your number is called, and then take a tray to one of two dozen seats on the first floor -- but you're eating amid the ordering mayhem. Or head for one of 20 seats upstairs, where you can escape the very loud music and the subtitled Indian soap operas on the telly.

You take your life in your hands when you venture up this steep flight with a tray. The tables are hard to describe. They are such a mishmash of what looks like relatives' castoffs -- cheesy dinette sets, for instance -- that you just have to giggle. And the lighting! Good thing there are no mirrors.

The six-year-old Punjabi Dhaba is owned by Sukhwinder Singh and his father, Mohan. They also own India Pavilion -- celebrating its 25th year -- India Food & Spices, Haveli, and Ghandi, all in Cambridge. Mohan Singh runs Punjabi. It was his idea, according to his son, to use the same stainless trays that are used at real roadside cafes in Punjab. These resemble the multisectioned plastic trays popular in the 1950s for serving meatloaf, mashed, and peas. Punjabi's trays are much bigger and much wider, so mounds of rice and all the wonderful spicy side dishes fit onto the tray.

If the Singh family sold the trays at the door, they'd do a landslide business. You can just picture yourself with a little stir-fry and some rice, splayed in front of the TV watching your favorite show. But then you could also carry out Punjabi food and take it home to arrange on the trays.

In fact, it's probably cheaper to eat at this roadside cafe than it is to cook at home. Every dish includes a bright-red spoonful of oniony pickle, sliced red onions, a loose and tangy raita (the yogurt dish with shredded vegetables), and such a generous mound of Basmati rice that it seems too much at first. But little by little, sprinkled with the intense sauces of these curried dishes, the rice will begin to disappear.

You'll love the pool of sauce on shrimp masala ($8.95), whose heat you can order any way you like. It's a warm heat, and the dark sauce, studded with tomatoes and green peppers, is layered with spices. Big fleshy curls of shrimp are tucked into it. The special lamb curry ($7.95) has another of these intense brown sauces with morsels of tender lamb poking out.

Saag paneer ($4.95) is one of the house vegetarian specialties, an emerald-green mousse-like mixture of pureed spinach with nuggets of a white cheese folded in. This dish is offered as a main course with the requisite rice beside it. The biryani ($7.95) is really heaped -- in both the entree and rice wells of the tray. A chicken version has large flakes of meat stirred into a golden mixture of basmati, onions, and green peppers. It's a little sweet, a tad hot, and you can't stop eating it.

Punjabi's star is the tandoori chicken. I ate a lot of forgettable, flaky, and dry tandoori chicken when I lived in London years ago, so it's heartening to come across a bird with the characteristic intense red exterior and moist, flavorful flesh. It's juicy! You can order half a bird ($6.95) or the whole chicken ($10.95). Either way, the pieces are cut up and served with naan. What a lovely, slightly chewy, deeply flavorful version of this puffy baked bread ($1.50 if ordered on its own).

Among the streamlined aspects of Punjabi is bottled water and styrofoam cups, so you can help yourself. There's also a stack of takeout containers to package up leftovers. There will be some.

One of my dinner guests, who lives nearby, told me that she and her boyfriend were working their way through the entire menu, one dish at a time. I was filled with envy, so I'll have to get to work to catch up.

PUNJABI DHABA

Cuisine: Indian

Address: 225 Hampshire St., Cambridge (Inman Square)

Phone: 617-617-8272

Hours: Daily noon to midnight.

Prices: $3-$11.

Comments: No reservations.

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