Restaurant Reviews

Kings Chicken Tandoori Cuisine Delivers Its Namesake in Grand Style

When a place is called Kings Chicken Tandoori Cuisine, the namesake dish had better be good. Indeed, even when served buffet-style, the Tandoori chicken is a better prospect than the usual. Here, it achieves its higher form. It’s smoky, but not dry as is too often typical. The interior is moist, especially closest to the bone, yet the meat is fully cooked. The exterior is beautifully blackened, and the rest is all in the hallmark red color that’s derived from a generous application of paprika spiked with red chile powder and a bit of cayenne.

The strip center that houses Kings Chicken Tandoori Cuisine could be called “nondescript” or “modest,” and that would be kind. It’s kind of ugly, actually, with the same coat of beige paint it’s had for years. The space that’s become the new home of Kings Chicken formerly housed Hunan Pagoda, an excellent Chinese restaurant that just up and disappeared a few years ago. (That was a loss, since it had the best hot and sour soup in Houston. If anyone knows where those folks went, let us know.)

After Hunan Pagoda closed, the space sat vacant for years until Kings took it over. The new owners have done a nice job classing up the interior. There’s now a soothing burgundy and tan color scheme, and the tables are all dressed up in white.
Robb Walsh did a tandem review of both Kings Chicken and Gourmet India back in 2008, when the far end of West Houston was a very different place. Back then, there were still grass-filled lots that dotted Westheimer from Dairy Ashford to West Oaks Mall, eventually giving way entirely to the green spaces that make up George Bush Park. Not too long before that, there even used to be cattle grazing in those fields.

The empty lots and grazing cattle along Westheimer are gone now, replaced by gyms, tile stores and pawnshops, and this Kings Chicken is very different from the one Walsh discovered. At the old Beechnut location, it served not only traditional fare from the Punjab region but also fusion dishes like halal pizza and gumbo. (At the old address now is a place called Stacatto’s. It still has the halal fried chicken and pizza, as well as some new items like Philly cheesesteak and burgers.)

This new Kings Chicken, under a different owner, is very traditional and doesn’t indulge in whimsy. It’s a classy, sit-down affair that offers buffet-style lunch Tuesdays through Fridays. At night on Tuesdays through Thursdays, dinner can be ordered à la carte from the menu. However, the buffet is offered again Friday through Sunday nights. Not many places serve a nighttime buffet, so it’s a great, inexpensive option for families and other large groups of people dining together.

Most interesting is that on Saturday and Sunday mornings, there’s a brunch buffet that features traditional breakfast foods like paya, nihari and all the components needed for the traditional combination of halwa puri cholay — creamy semolina cereal (think Cream of Wheat but three times as good thanks to the addition of cardamom, ghee, milk and saffron), cholay (curried chickpeas) and the soft, rich cousins of tortillas known as puri.

Most Indian restaurants don’t serve beef, since Hindus consider cows sacred animals. However, Pakistani restaurants tend to be informed more by Muslim beliefs, so beef is on the menu. (Neither type serves pork, as both Muslims and Hindus consider pigs to be forbidden, unclean animals.) All meat dishes served at Kings Chicken are halal, according to its web site.

The paya curry served at Kings Chicken is made with stewed beef trotters. After they’re slowly cooked for a long time, an incredibly rich, dark, thick gravy evolves thanks to the tremendous amount of collagen given up by the bones and connective tissue. A wealth of spices lends huge, complex flavor: black pepper, cardamom, garlic, ginger, chiles and more. It would be an incredibly satisfying breakfast to have nothing more than a bowl of paya, scooping up the silky curry sauce with one of Kings’s delicate, crispy-bottomed naan breads.

Yet that would mean passing up the rest of the buffet, and it just wouldn’t be right to miss out on the hot and spicy bhindi masala, fiery rounds of okra stewed in tomatoes, onions, garam masala, coriander and plenty of red chile powder. Nor would it be appropriate to pass up the nihari, another beef dish made with great pride at Kings. The name comes from the word for “day,” and it’s considered the national dish of Pakistan. In ancient times, it was served to kings after their morning prayers. In time, the dish was adopted for breakfast by the common folk. It was also sometimes made in great quantities and served to laborers who worked on construction projects in exchange for meals and shelter.

There are some fun little surprises, too, like the tart, cold pasta at the salad station made with green bell peppers and fresh tomato wedges. Speaking of the salad station, this is where to find many traditional sauces, including hari chutney (a cooling mixture of cilantro and mint leaves) and imli chutney (a red, sweet tamarind sauce). Both go beautifully with Kings Chicken’s big, fragrant samosas.
It’s okay, though, to pass on the haleem, the slow-cooked stew made of wheat, barley and lentils. It normally has a thick, polarizing consistency that people either love or hate, but Kings’s is a thin, miserly version that lacks substance as much as it lacks meat.

While eating, be on the lookout for whole spices like star anise, cardamom pods and whole chiles. These additions are absolutely vital for big flavors but not so wonderful to bite into. For some reason, the food served during the weekday lunch buffet is less spicy than on the weekends or at night, perhaps so as not to sear the palates of day workers who might wander over from the nearby Energy Corridor.

Desserts here are the very typical buffet standards of gulab jamun (sponge-cake-like balls of milk solids soaked in rosewater and doused in syrup) and kheer (cream-laden pudding of rice and broken wheat). Both are better than average, though, especially the gulab jamun, which are kept piping hot.

Leave the booze at home. Kings Chicken does not offer alcoholic beverages, nor is it BYOB. A dining companion asked if it was allowed, and the owner’s response was, “Ha-ha! No.” In fact, water seems to be the drink of choice. Nothing else is offered, although soda and iced tea are available upon request. Just take it as an opportunity to eat good food and behave for once.

Service is welcoming and kind. The owner and staff are happy to answer questions about the food, and glasses are refilled often. For that matter, the owner visited our table a few times and was genuinely interested in whether we enjoyed the food or found it too spicy. “No way! Bring it on!” we cried in unison.

Not many people seem to know about the new Kings Chicken location yet, though. On every visit, only three or four tables were filled, although one was a big party of 14 people — men, women and children — who seemed to be celebrating something. Hopefully, that will change very soon.

Kings Chicken Tandoori Cuisine
2209 Highway 6 South, 281-498-2900. Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

Chicken samosas $3.99
Halwa puri $6.99
Chicken seekh kebab $8.99
Beef seekh kebab $9.99
Chicken biryani $9.99
Lunch buffet $10.99
Brunch or dinner buffet $11.99
Iced tea $1.75
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook