Every Houstonian knows at least one gastronomic braggart who insists nothing is ever hot enough for them. Bring this person in your life to Savoy Grocery's adjoining Tikka & Kebab restaurant, a resoundingly bare-bones Pakistani operation that's guaranteed to make even the macho chilehead emit involuntary exhalations and random gasps.
Here, within a far southwestern shopping center rimmed eccentrically in lavender, an on-the-bone leg of chicken tikka -- a dish that is usually innocence personified -- assaults the palate with a blaze of heat. Moist, scored and daubed with a gingery, red-chiled paste, this is chicken with major attitude. It comes with big, thick rounds of serviceable naan, their undersides aggressively singed, and a thin, fruity tamarind chutney that jacks the heat level up even further. That unassuming little cuplet of green-tinted yogurt dip on the side? It packs a wallop, of course.
Those in the mood for further discipline can avail themselves of vegetable dishes that inhabit an entirely different universe from the ones at Luby's. Take a potato-and-spinach mixture called aloo palak, for instance: really, really oily; really, really hot; really, really good. Surprises lurk within -- a little grit here, a big, woody seed pod there. Who cares? It could wake up the dead, restore the jaded, power the next generation of automobiles.
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One eats these challenging substances in singularly unlovely surroundings alleviated only by a few festive strands of Christmas tinsel and a neon-lit juice bar where an elderly impresario may occasionally be observed gravely squeezing the life out of lengths of sugar cane. He makes gentle, foamy banana or mango shakes that calm the fires started at the self-serve counter a few feet away. He adds strange red syrups to impossibly froufroued tutti-frutti drinks snapped up by young families out for a shopping-and-snacking excursion and tables full of T-shirt-wearing, cellular-phone-wielding young men.
Patrons who aren't from the subcontinent may not exactly feel welcomed, but they are tolerated -- and vastly stimulated. So stimulated, in fact, that I'm seriously considering ordering the brains masala the next time they appear on the weekend lineup. -- Alison Cook
Savoy Grocery's Tikka & Kebab, 11246 Wilcrest, 568-6772.
Savoy Grocery's Tikka & Kebab: chicken tikka, $3.69; aloo palak, $2.69; mango shake, $1.99.