Photo by Katherine Harris
A mere five years ago, it seemed like all our local Indian buffets had devolved into stale and dismal lines of steam trays featuring reheated curry packets to feed the undiscriminating cheapskate. That was then. Minnesota’s boom in many tech fields has resulted in several thousand new workers here on H-1B visas every year, almost 7,000 in 2013, according to the website myvisajobs.com, and more than 5,600 in 2012. H-1B visas are those extended to highly skilled workers invited by specific companies, often in the fields of computers, science, or math, or to act as liaisons with offshore service companies in India. Not all of Minnesota’s H-1B visa holders are from India, but many of them are, and the jobs these long-term visitors fill are upper- middle-class ones, ranging in pay from about $50,000 to more than $200,000 a year—in other words, we suddenly have a lot of new neighbors who know a few things about how a biryani ought to taste and can afford to have it for lunch whenever they want. Welcome to the new Minnesota Indian lunch scene. It’s really good.
I decided to write about the new buffet lunch scene, as opposed to highlighting one restaurant, for a few reasons. One, the scene has been improving and changing without any actual new restaurants opening—many of the standouts here have been open for quite a few years now. Two, I thought merely finding the single best Indian restaurant that pulls out all the stops at dinner would obscure the general improvements of the Indian scene overall. Three, Minnesotans, even raised-on-tuna-noodle-casserole Minnesotans, love to talk Indian lunch buffets! I know because every time I have mentioned this story people seek me out quietly later and want the inside scoop before it’s published, while regaling me with tales of buffets past, present, and favorite. I hereby declare Indian buffet lunches as important to Minnesota food as sushi and pancakes (though behind the State Fair and hamburgers). Finally, this new local Indian population boom is scattered over the extended metro: Folks who came to work for 3M end up living in the eastern suburbs, those who came to work for UnitedHealthcare end up way out west—this is not one story but many with hyperlocal small changes all over the extended metropolitan area. But above all it’s a story about eating astonishingly well, right here, right now, all over town.
Best Locavore: Gandhi Mahal
When was the last time you saw a yellow wax bean curry? You’ll find it here, alongside new potatoes dressed with bright spinach and toasted mustard, kale and mustard greens enriching the chick-peas in the chana sag, biryani covered in a thick layer of bright green herbs, tiny purple eggplant charred for an aloo begun, and a dozen other dishes that look like they came straight from the CSA box. Gandhi Mahal is a Bangladeshi restaurant owned by a young visionary named Ruhel Islam who works with local community gardens to showcase the best of our local harvest, using traditional Indian spices and great skill. If you ever wanted a sort of Alice Waters meets Indian food restaurant, it’s here.
Buffet: 11:30 am–3 pm, $9.95 (kids under 5 eat free). 3009 27th Ave. S., Mpls., 612-729-5222, gandhimahal.com
Best Cheap: Kabobs
Remember how, in the idealized American lunch of our collective imaginations, people would get the blue plate special? Kabobs in the food court of Gaviidae is the modern-day equivalent for Indian tech workers in downtown Minneapolis. Here’s how it works. It’s $6.99. It’s a bare-bones, kind of abandoned-looking cafeteria line. There are no labels telling you what anything is. But you go and tell the nice lady behind the counter if you’re a vegetarian or a meat eater. She then fills up a big cardboard partitioned cafeteria tray for you—a pile of lentil dahl here, a mound of green bean rice there, maybe a hard-boiled egg curry and a tandoori chicken, naan bread, and a bowl of sweet carrot halwah for dessert. It’s a groaning amount of food, zestily spiced, and not dumbed down in the least. The meat has bones, there’s okra sometimes, and there’s enough food that you probably won’t have to eat again till tomorrow. Are tech workers the lumberjacks of the new digital economy? Perhaps, but Indian is the best cheap gigantic lunch downtown.
Lunch buffet: 11 am–2:30 pm weekdays, $6.99. 555 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-455-6156, thekabobs.com
Best Vegetarian: Dosa King
Vegans and vegetarians, get in your cars. Drive north on Central until you see the Dosa King and rejoice! You’ll start your meal with individually made-to-order thin paper dosas filled with green onion and spice-laced mashed potatoes. Then proceed to the buffet for plump idli semolina-flour pancakes, fresh fat curds of paneer cosseted by bright peas, tangy roasted cauliflower, and another dozen delights, including just-fried poori bread that’s puffed out like a balloon and gossamer thin.
Lunch buffet: 11:30 am–2:30 pm Tu–Su, $8.99 weekdays, $12.99 weekends. 8492 Central Ave. NE, Spring Lake Park, 763-780-6948, dosakingmn.com
Best of the East: Indian Aroma
There are so many 3M badges on the customers at Indian Aroma that you may at first fear you’ve blundered into an unsecured cafeteria, but one taste of the food will assure you this awkwardly named restaurant is serving food that’s anything but cafeteria-boring. It doesn’t have the biggest selection of buffet foods, but in many ways it’s the most charming, as everything tastes like home cooking, wholesome and well practiced. The baigan bahar minted eggplant is straight from the garden, purple orbs cut such that every piece is fitted into the pan in a mosaic. The chicken subziwala salaan is whole chicken pieces simmered in a golden sauce until the chicken is falling-off-the-bone tender. When you sit down they bring you a special loaf of naan bread, cooked just for you, just then. This is your new Indian family.
Buffet: 11 am–2:30 pm Tu–Su, $8.95. 27 Century Ave., Maplewood, 651-330-2653,
Meat Lovers: Curry ’N’ Noodles
Quick, think of every cliché of men dining alone—meat and more meat, spice and more spice? That’s Curry ’N’ Noodles at lunch! You’ll find Indian jalapeno poppers and six kinds of meat on the buffet line, including a version of chicken 65 so chili-intense and butter-slick you want to moan for a football game and a beer. Not that there isn’t delicacy in the cooking—the tandoori chicken is the best in town, moist and layered with flavor, each piece coated in the sautéed aromatics of jalapeno and onion and perked up with cilantro. It makes every other restaurant’s tandoori chicken taste like wads of newspaper. It’s awfully good, and it’s in Hopkins.
Lunch buffet: 11 am–2:30 pm M and W–F, 11:30 am–2:30 pm Sa–Su, $8.99 weekdays, $10.99 weekends. 802 Mainstreet, Hopkins, 952-681-7834, currynnoodles.com