The Royal Treatment
I am sitting at a long table at Royal Restaurant with a couple of friends, one who has traveled to India and recently moved to Austin from Houston. "There just aren't any good Indian restaurants in Austin," she says. As we sit at the table, listening to Bollywood videos on a ridiculously large plasma TV, our vegetable samosas arrive. Filled with huge chunks of potatoes and spices, they are huge. I dip mine in yogurt sauce.
There aren't very many people here, as it's an odd time, like three in the afternoon. We don't seem to fit into this Little India eatery, and I wouldn't have been surprised if the service were a bit rude. But Rahim Ali, the son of the owner, has welcomed us and is eager to help us pick out some of the house specialties.
You either hate Indian food or you crave it. I often crave it. Royal offers both Indian and Pakistani cuisine; there's even a few Chinese dishes. It is super-clean, with no pork products or alcohol, but there's beef, goat, chicken and a little seafood.
The tawa chicken is the first main dish to arrive at our table. A tawa is a cast-iron dish with short sides used for cooking meals, usually without a lot of sauce. The chicken is moist and spicy, with not so much heat but lots of coriander. The small chunks of chicken sit in a pool of ghee (the clarified butter used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking). The dish is done well. Our tablemate from Austin starts making orgasmic sounds as she puts another bite of the chicken in her mouth.
It's the karahi goat that really blows her mind, though. This Mughlai-style goat dish is made in a wok-like pot, with the meat seared and simmered in a curry till tender. The goat still has some of the bones on it. I like dishes that are served with the bones still in; they provide a rustic, authentic feel. The goat is delicious, and the flavors are so balanced, with the spice just how I like it. I pour the yogurt sauce on my plate, dip some naan into it and take a huge bite to cool off my mouth from the heat of the goat.
The Royal grill plate arrives. There's a half tikka chicken that looks like chicken cooked tandoori-style, bright red and roasted on the outside. They always take the skin off, maybe because it's healthier, or because it doesn't come out right when you leave it on, but I love crispy chicken skin. Still, the dish tastes of chile and garlic and is a nice change from the heavier karahi goat and tawa chicken.
Also on the grill plate is a beef seekh kebab, the Pakistani staple of ground meat with lots of chilies and cardamom. These have always been a favorite of mine; they're like street food. It all sits on top of a bed of onions, tomatoes and peppers with some beef bihari, another type of grilled meat usually marinated in yogurt and spices. It is tender and fragrant. It is Royal.
We soon realize we have ordered too much food. All the dishes are family-size, big enough for two or three people each. Not to mention, we've each had a vegetable samosa the size of my fist for starters. But everything is so flavorful, we just keep eating. The naan in particular is really hard to put down. I don't know why, but orange soda, like Fanta and Sunkist, goes nicely with spicy Indian food, washing down all the spices so well.
Why is it so hard to find an Indian restaurant in Houston that doesn't have a buffet, especially at lunch, and doesn't focus on hookahs and flavored tobaccos? Those things are fine and dandy, but I want to order off a menu and not feel like a guy hanging out on a smoke break...who doesn't smoke. I'm thrilled to have found Royal, because there's no buffet and no hookahs.
Royal caters to the people who work and live in Houston's Little India, especially the families. It is like Luby's, but with Pakistani and Indian food. It even has a large partition splitting the restaurant in half, with one side for families.
It's late after a long day at work when I go back to Royal Restaurant with a couple of industry eaters — the place stays open till midnight every night. We're hungry, and driving out to the Beltway and Bissonnet has given us plenty of time to think about what we want to eat. There are more than 90 items on the Royal menu, all of them flavorful and fantastic, I'm sure.
I'm thinking kebabs and curry, and others are thinking masala and paneer. When we arrive, Rahim is more than happy to accommodate us. In fact, he even remembers me from my last visit, down to what I ate. My first dining companion is thinking too hard, so Rahim suggests the goat korma, as he wants something spicy. I joke that my food companion wants goat brain masala, and Rahim smiles and says, "Oh, we have the testicles too." We all laugh.
Rahim also suggests something off the grill. It's kind of an off-menu item — something tells me Royal has a lot of these — and what Rahim refers to as "Indian diner food." It turns out to be grilled goat chops, or Royal Goat Champ (by the way, don't do a Google Images search for "Royal Goat Champ"). We also order karahi chicken and more samosas, this time the beef variety, along with naan. Oh, the naan.
The karahi chicken is no less than fantastic, with lots of garlic and ginger flavors. The goat korma is packed with aromatic spices, all the usual suspects: coriander, cardamom, turmeric and chilies. But the show stopper, the thunder-stealer, the one dish I will always come here for, is the goat chops. Let me tell you something, of all the times I have eaten Indian food, nothing, I mean nothing, even comes close to this. This dish is a meat-eater's wet dream. The huge rib bones stick out of the plate like meat sails, and the red, seared skin of the meat beckons you like a goat siren. I tear into one of these chops and never look back. I'm halfway through one when my table mate says, "Suck the marrow." Without hesitation, I suck the marrow out of the middle of the chop, and it is like butter: milky, creamy warm butter of goat bone. Need I say more?
The super-kind folks at Royal have been doing knockout Pakistani and Indian food for more than 16 years, and they know how to make you feel at home, whether home is Montrose or Punjab. If you're looking for a family meal or just a chicken curry and a lassi (yogurt drink), Rahim Ali and his father Jaffar Ali will take you in, wrap you in naan and keep you warm on cold days or cool you off with gola ganda (Indian snow cones) on hot days.
The simplicity and quality of the execution of these dishes, not to mention the Bollywood hip-hop videos playing on the flat-screen, make me want to travel to India. I look up the price of a plane ticket on my phone. It's $1,400 for a 34-hour flight. Royal Restaurant will have to do for now.
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