By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
The grilled chicken has lots of flavor, but the sauce is bland. In fact, the chicken tikka masala at London Sizzler Tandoori Bar & Grill tastes like barbecued chicken chunks floating in Campbell's cream of tomato soup flavored with curry. Except that the colors are all wrong.
The formerly white chicken meat has been dyed a disturbing salmon color. And the chicken has, in turn, tinted the masala sauce a shade more reminiscent of lipstick than tomato sauce. Don't worry, my dining companions assure me, these weird hues are the norm in the signature dish of the British curry house, chicken tikka masala (or CTM, as it's known over there).
My tablemates, both of whom lived in England for an extended period, have come along to help me understand what's going on at this new restaurant at the intersection of Hillcroft and the Southwest Freeway.
6690 SW Freeway
Houston, TX 77074
Region: Outer Loop - SW
British Indian food is inspired by Punjabi cooking, but in fact it's its own distinct subgenre. Onion bhaji, a sort of Indian onion fritter, is now found in nearly every pub in Britain. Sometimes it looks like the blooming onion from Outback Steakhouse, and sometimes it looks like a mess of onion rings. Here at London Sizzler, the onion bhaji resembles an onion-studded hush puppy, made with chick-pea flour instead of cornmeal. It's a little greasy, but it tastes okay dunked in lots of chutney.
Butter chicken is a lot like CTM, but a heavy dose of the clarified butter called ghee has been added to give it a richer and creamier texture. "They didn't cook it long enough," one of my English-educated dinner guests notes. She uses the butter chicken served at Khan's restaurant in London as her gold standard. That version features chicken that's been cooked long and slow so that it melts in your mouth, she says. London Sizzler's butter chicken is made with chunks of white meat that are still quite firm.
My tablemates agree that the lamb vindaloo is suitably spicy. I find it piquant enough, but with a bit too much tomato sweetness. When you set the CTM, butter chicken and vindaloo side by side, you see how similar these British curries are. Each is essentially a tomato sauce with meat chunks in it.
The hottest thing on the table isn't a curry at all. It's an African dish called chicken pili pili. The chicken chunks with lightly caramelized onion slices and incendiary tomato-chile sauce are delivered on a sizzling metal plate that will look familiar to anyone who's ever eaten fajitas in Houston.
But chicken pili pili turns out to be an unfortunate choice for the "sizzler" treatment. The smoke coming off the heated platter contains so much chile pepper oil that the entire table immediately begins coughing and gagging. "Pepper gas!" someone at the table screams. When the noxious fumes have died down and we finally get a chance to eat the dish, we all agree that the African pili pili peppers, sautéed onions, grilled chicken and tomato make a terrific combination. And the crispy, hot nan bread, with lots of charred bubbles, is right up there with the best you'll taste in Houston.
The owners of London Sizzler are nonresident Indians who were born in Zambia and educated in London, and are now manning the kitchen here in Houston, our waiter explains. Hence the African dish on the menu, which also features Russian shashliks, Pakistani kabobs, Tex-Mex nachos, and fish and chips.
I tried the fish and chips with another friend from London on a previous visit. The fish was a square, frozen, breaded fishcake of the Mrs. Paul's variety. My companion described it as "ghastly." Several other dishes from the same section of the menu, such as quiche and steak-and-onion pie, have been eliminated from the menu since that earlier visit.
Ghastly fish and chips and all, London Sizzler has become an immediate favorite of the British expat community in Houston. Looking around the modest dining rooms, I'm amazed at how many people of Indian ancestry are eating here. There are, after all, lots of excellent Indian restaurants in Houston. But my Anglophile buddies remind me that a lot of Houston's British expats are Indian-British. And they love the British version of Indian food, too.
British curry houses are to Indian food what Tex-Mex restaurants are to Mexican cuisine. And just as Tex-Mex standards like fajitas, margaritas and nachos are now popular in Mexico, so have British favorites like chicken tikka masala become increasingly common in India.
Chicken tikka, also known as tandoori chicken, is traditionally marinated overnight in a mixture of yogurt, ginger, garlic and other spices. In India, the natural red dye found in cockscomb flowers was once added to color the marinade on festive occasions. Red food coloring is now used for that purpose, and in Great Britain an intense red seems to be the preferred color. After marinating, the chicken is cooked in a tandoori oven, or grilled. (My dining companions use a George Foreman grill at home.)
The tandoori mixed grill at London Sizzler includes a juicy chicken tikka, which is red on the outside, but not nearly as intensely colored as the chunks in the CTM. The lamb tikka is moist though very well done, and a ground lamb kabob is spicy but a little dry. The attractive-looking tandoori shrimp are watery and flavorless.