For too long, the frequent criticism leveled at vegetarian cusine was richly deserved—slippery, uncomfortably jiggly tofu; seitan like shoe leather; veggie burgers with the texture of compressed saw dust and a flavor to match. It’s come a long way, and to insist, as some do, that it hasn’t is uninformed. Because as the region’s food culture has grown and expanded, and as the Philadelphia area has become home to an ever increasing range of immigrant communities and their hometown cuisines, the options for dining in any number of styles—vegetarian among them—have grown accordingly.
This is all to say I shouldn’t have been surprised by the flat-out success of Taj-India, the vegetarian destination humbly located in the Bustleton Somerton Shopping Center in the Great Northeast. For fans of Indian food in particular, and anyone who simply loves to eat well in general, this is a must-visit restaurant, and thoroughly worth the schlep up 95.
Corn soup is listed as a “family recipe” on the menu (all the soups are), which sets the bar of expectations rather high before it’s even ordered. But like nearly everything else here, it delivers with gusto. You can pick the level of heat/spice on a scale of one to 10. I went with seven, and was met with a warning from my fantastic waitress Jalpa, who worried it might be too hot for me. The bowl packed a serious punch, its fiery red-umber color a harbinger of its heat. But just when the smoke had nearly begun shooting from my ears, cartoon-style, the deep sweetness of the corn itself slid in beneath, softening the flame and balancing it out.
Fried appetizers were a master course in oil temperature and batter thickness. Vegetable samosa, filled with a fragrant mix of baked potato and pea, was encased in a flaky wheat and rice flour dough whose surface was attractively woven with shallow cracks, like an overhead view of the ocean floor. Paneer samosa added that round-flavored homemade cheese to the equation. Chickpea batter-fried vegetable pakodas were denser and sweeter—addictively easy to pop like a game-time snack. Tikki chole added tamarind, coriander chutney, and chickpeas to already singing potatoes.
Chole bhatura also showed how stunning chickpeas can be when given the respect they deserve and are allowed to shine as a dish’s centerpiece. The heat of the curried chickpeas here was of a more linear sort, the spice driving a line down the center of the tongue. This was mitigated (though not completely; you wouldn’t want it to be) by the excellent bhatura, a dense, deep-fried bread that’s a typical accompaniment. The side of raita, its own springtime flavors of vegetables and yogurt a well-calibrated counterpart to the curry, could easily have stood up on its own.
Kaju curry, on the other hand, was downright meaty. Marinated Indian cashews attained an almost beeflike chew, and their own inherent sweet-earthiness permeated the sunset-orange liquid with a heady, nutty flavor that clearly took a long time of simmering to develop. Here was a creamy, infinitely complex curry that I’d happily put up against any nonveg one I’ve ordered in the past year. As with so much else here, the lack of meat proved not to be a detriment but a boon.
To sop up all this delicious food, a bread basket is a great idea, and makes a fantastic take-home treat for the next day’s lunch. Butter naan was crisp in parts, slippery in others. Kulcha, texturally perfect, was coated in enough garlic to send any fan of Emeril into conniptions of joy. Puri, ethereally light, was magnificent.
Only the paneer kabob roll was a disappointment, the promising ginger and garlic spicing of the paneer too obscured by the lettuce, tomatoes, and flatbread to hold its own. But that paneer on its own was stunning, and yet another demonstration of this kitchen’s concern for freshness and flavor.
But that’s a mere quibble in the context of an otherwise stellar procession of dishes. I just wish more people took advantage of this understated, admittedly not-terribly-atmospheric gem. Perhaps its location—not far from the corner of Red Lion and Bustleton, in the heart of the Northeast—will deter the city’s foodies. Or the fact that it’s a strictly vegetarian spot. Or that its nestled in a shopping center that isn’t aesthetically pleasing alongside an eyeglass store and florist.
But the food here is just amazing, and missing out on Taj-India is tantamount to a serious Philly food sin. Find a way to the shopping center, order a sour, funky salted lassi, and prepare yourself for one of the most satisfying Indian meals around. It’s beyond good enough to atone for all manner of veg-food sins you’ve been subjected to in the past.
10863 Bustleton Ave.
Cuisine: Indian vegetarian.
Hours: Tues.-Sun., 10am-9:30pm
Atmosphere: Simple decor, but the staff makes it feel much warmer.
Food: Crafted with more care and love than many places at twice the price. In a word: Wonderful. Service: Helpful and charming.
Dinner with Luke Palladino