There is very little memorable about Passage to India: The Great Indian Cuisine -- except the terrific food. Owners Andy Singh and Jorge Yol did little in this space which had been an Indian vegetarian restaurant. Walls are a muted monotone and the small room is bereft of decoration. Bare-top tables line up in a predictable manner with a buffet table languishing against the back wall during dinner hours.
If it seems that Indian restaurants or snack shops are opening at a prodigious rate in Charlotte, they are. Singh explains the reason is numbers. In 2002, he estimates 4,000 Indian ex-pats lived in Charlotte. He says that number increased to 6,000 in 2004 and then more than tripled to 20,000 today. Singh suggests that many Indian ex-pats are employed by corporation IT departments which are located in the University area. Not coincidently, this is also where his business is located.
Passage is also across the street from the UNC-Charlotte campus. Singh designed the menu to appeal to the Middle Eastern student population there by offering only Halal (permissible foods according to Islamic law) meats.
The focus at Passage seems to be on the food. At the helm of the kitchen is Gobinathan Anaimuthu, a native of south India, who specializes in the foods from his region. But the menu, constructed for long-term appeal, is not limited to the land of his birth and offers a pleasing roundup of dishes from the north and south of India with a generous mix of Indo-Chinese dishes.
Indo-Chinese is a blend of Chinese cooking techniques with Indian style and spices, and is notoriously hot. This hybrid cuisine developed by the ethnic Han Chinese who immigrated to India centuries ago is similar in context to Tex-Mex, a Mexican American amalgam which is neither Mexican nor Texan, but is now a unique culinary category. In India, these dishes are referred to as Chinese, and represent the favorite ethnic food of India.
Passage's roster boosts 99 items. Among the starters are a duet of memorable vegetable samosas, large and flavorful, and a balanced octet of perfectly crisped pakoras.
Servers will inquire about the heat level, yet while pepper hotness is measured by the universal standard (the Scofield chart), degrees of heat in a restaurant dish are not. We attempted to describe the level of heat, but our dishes were crafted with bite but no fight.
Better was the goat curry with aromatic layers. All the meats from the tandoor are exceptionally tasty, particularly the minced lamb kabob stippled with cilantro. Chicken tikka masala (and yes, I believe I heard an audible sigh from our server when this was ordered) that went around the table is a respectable dish. North Indian flat breads -- poori, naan, kulcha, paratha, and stuffed naan -- arrive mouth-wateringly hot from the tandoor. Southern Indian dosas (thin crepes) are available, too, with stuffing or plain. Desserts include a thin rice pudding and carrot halwa.
In addition to a regular run of dishes is the weekend special (Friday through Sunday): a spectacular platter of medu vada, bronzed lentil doughnuts with pillowy interiors, served with sambar and a less than brilliant coconut chutney.
Beer, a favored accompanist to Indian dishes, is not offered here, nor are any alcoholic beverages. In their stead are lassis, teas and soft drinks.
A lunch buffet table has 15 items weekdays ($6.99) and 30 items weekends ($9.99). Also, customers who present a valid university ID (any local university) receive a 10 percent discount on menu items. Lunch boxes to go are $5 to $7. Dinner entrées are reasonably priced: Most are around $11 with a range from $8 for a vegetarian dish to $16 for a grilled meat platter (enough food for two or more).
Passage to India is a no-nonsense affair: The service is minimal, but the check is, too. One of the themes in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India is the incessant need for Westerners to try to compartmentalize all things Indian and not accept the undefined lines of diversity. The kitchen at this Passage blurs the lines of distinctiveness with delicious results.
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Passage to India: The Great Indian Cuisine, 9510 University City Blvd. 704-549-1886. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.; dinner hours: Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. until 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. No Web site.