Where: Pavani Indian Cuisine, 10554 Southwest Fwy., 713-272-8259
What $13 gets you: As many circuits through the buffet line as you need. Plan to make at least a few.
We walked in at 5:30 sharp, right when the place opens for dinner, which meant it was just us and the chef -- a burly man in a white smock who stood over the buffet like a watchful father -- for the extent of the meal. This made things slightly awkward, as it was painfully obvious where all the food was going (and who dripped curry into the rice).
Starting with the basics, Pavani has its food down exactly right. The crucial naan was just a bit greasy to the touch, crisp and crunchy at first bite, then soft and chewy. We spent the entire first plate just using it to wipe up the various chutneys, which were all kinds of spicy, tangy and sweet.
Back at the buffet line, we filled another plate with fried sides (it was impossible to read the hand-written labels on most), then stopped short at the fresh pile of chicken breasts and legs colored an enticing tandoori red, and piled several pieces on top.
The chicken was solid -- especially with the fact that this is a buffet line in mind -- as were items like lemon rice and tikka masala.
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But the true treat came on Trip 3 with the butter chicken, which on first taste inspired an "I'm going to need another whole plate of this" sensation. The sauce was thick and a deep, Indian-food only red, with swirls of even darker spots that might have been extra oil or butter. It tasted just as rich as it looked.
The Hindi pop on the radio was a nice touch, and it seemed to complement the 1970s-esque décor of the sprawling dining room, best embodied by the store-front windows of tinted glass.
Recommended? It even justifies the sojourn well outside the loop.
Bonus point: They called it rice pudding. We're not sure if that was rice or tiny balls of space goo. It was warm and delicious, though.