The almighty Wikipedia tells me that tarka can mean many things. It can indicate the name of a flute native to the Andes, for instance, or an antihypertensive medication or the last name of an Australian football star. It is the first name of a British musician, a type of alien in a particularly horrendous-sounding video game, and in the case of the new fast casual eatery that opened in late June at 721 W. 19th in the Heights, Tarka Indian Kitchen, the word can denote a cooking technique used in most Indo-Pak cuisine. The eatery's official website calls it "the explosion of the senses that happens when whole spices and fresh ingredients like garlic, ginger and onions meet a hot pan."
I didn't feel my eyeballs and nose hairs pop out of my skull when I walked in the door, but I did lose my mind when I found parking out front.
The dining area is neither the best nor worst offender when it comes to those clean and bland and rather soulless fast casual places. That doesn't mean it sucks. It doesn't. It's clean. It's bland. It's decorated in the various colors of autumnal sweaters and slacks that you suspect all of Wes Anderson's school teachers must have worn throughout his formal education— beiges and browns and saffron and sometimes the more barfy tones often reserved for old textbooks or suburban homes where loopy people always spot the face of Jesus in the stucco siding and call the local news. You likely won't have a come-to-God moment at Tarka Indian Kitchen, but the food, as I said, is just fine.
This is it. The land of Tarka. The brand of Tarka. The identifiable. The reliable. The build-your-own-bowl of curry. The choose-a-protein, choose-a-sauce, choose-how-spicy era. Go vegetarian if you want to. It's basically an intro-to-Indian.
The intro to Tarka goes like this: It started in Austin with the owners of more traditional Indian eatery The Clay Pit. There are now six Tarka locations between ATX, San Antonio and Round Rock and another heading to Spring. Its CEO, Tinku Sinai, told Houstonia last year that "this is not the Chipotle of Indian," but if you've been to fellow Austin exports Torchy's, Tacodeli or even Ramen Tatsu-Ya, you'll understand the drill: Stand in line, look at the menu, order at the counter, sign the touchscreen that's been slicked by the microbes of expediency and thousands of index fingers before your own, and then wait about ten minutes for food that's relatively cheap. Everything is under $10.
This is a suitable place to take the kids, coworkers, friends, a date or your older parents who may or may not like spicy foods. I witnessed all of these situations during my first two visits. Yoga music bounced around in the background while a baby shrieked and millennials gossiped about an asexual friend while a woman talked loudly about a $500 baby shower. It is the Heights. Seating is tight.
You're basically just getting quick and cheap hits that you can down quickly and that your kids can learn to appreciate, and I fully respect that. I have no kids, so I downed the chicken pakoras by my lonesome, the strips of white meat fried to franchise-level tenderness with an ample floury chickpea breading seasoned by masala. It'll do the trick for any person who considers chicken tenders a hobby. A sprinkling of fresh cilantro and a sweet, minty yogurt dipping sauce, which accompanies almost everything here, add to the overall experience of the appetizer. Plus, it's dang cheap for the serving, just $4.
Samosas are reliable, if not kind of perfunctory-seeming, abandoned on Tarka's ubiquitous black plate, which looks sourced from the same catering company that supplies plastic dinnerware to all the world's wedding and office party buffets. You can almost see your reflection in the dark square void as you reach the samosa to your mouth, praying that the deep-fried, potato-starched innards don't cause you to have heartburn in an hour when you lie down to watch Game of Thrones.
The naanini, which breaks my heart to order the same way a Panera bread bowl does, was unremarkable. I got the lamb variation, and it's a big serving for no more than $8.75 (before tax and tip), but the meat wasn't very tender and there was a weird taste of the kind that sometimes accompanies fast-food veg, the tomato kind of mealy, so I doused it in the magic green yogurt mint sauce and dreamed about better lamb sandwiches, in particular Niko Niko's gyro. The masala fries are abundant, but even coated in seasoning they still lack gusto.
The best bet here is the garlic naan. I could eat it all day and night. I could sleep on a bed of it. It's rich and garlicky and soft and greasy and wonderful. It made my bowl of mattar paneer, tender bits of paneer cheese and peas floating in a creamy onion curry with tomato sauce, ever the more likable.
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The way to do it here seems to be to come with friends and share a few different bowls of curry, whether you choose a chicken tikka masala, shrimp coconut or lamb vindaloo, or maybe even throw in some biryani bowls and kebabs, but if you dine alone, you're more likely to find a spot during busy hours, which right now seems to be all opening hours.
As somebody who doesn't really like chains to begin with — at least I tell myself that, as you probably do — Tarka is the lesser of evils. It's a fine new spot. It has beer and wine to take the edge off, and you can hop over to Fat Cat Creamery for dessert. You'll return if you live nearby. If you don't, just head to Hillcroft instead.
Tarka Indian Kitchen
721 West 19th, tarkaindiankitchen.com, 346-802-2096
Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.