It's easy to pass by Tandoori Nite during the day. Squatting in the corner of a bland Phillips 66 gas station parking lot, the little white food truck is lost amidst the visual static and clutter that line both sides of Highway 6 in Mission Bend. But by night, Tandoori Nite glows like a beacon — and the later it gets, the brighter it shines.
7821 Hwy. 6 S., 713-852-7642. Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight, Wednesdays through Mondays.
Plain naan $1
Sweet lassi $2.99
Half order tandoori chicken $7.99
Saag paneer $6.99
Aloo mattar $6.99
Chicken curry $7.99
Goat korma $8.99
SLIDESHOW: Spend A Night at Tandoori Nite
BLOG POST: What Is a Dhaba? Find Out at Tandoori Nite
Open until midnight most days of the week, Tandoori Nite is no ordinary food truck. Its offerings of fiercely red tandoori chicken, hot naan bread and subtly spicy aloo mattar (as well as its Phillips 66 location) make it the closest you'll get to an authentic Indian dhaba in Houston, and it's fitting for this part of town — a melting pot whose influences range from the African wholesale grocery store behind the gas station to the halal meat market down the street at Beechnut.
It's a colorful part of town, with street names like Empanada Drive and an H-E-B that holds my favorite Filipino restaurant in its tiny food court. North of Tandoori Nite is the massive Shell Technology Campus but also a restaurant with a giant trompo for a sign that looks like an orange tornado of meat, with a sprawling flea market across the highway that usually holds at least three of its own food trucks out front on any given day. And then there's Tandoori Nite, where a tall, white picket fence surrounds an eating area brightened up with cherry-red picnic tables and shimmering in the hazy evenings with the warm light of bulbs strung up along the fence posts.
Eating at Tandoori Nite is an entirely different experience from eating in the dim, clamorous dining rooms of Little India. Because it's outside the city limits, the food truck is allowed to have its own open-air seating area, which is surprisingly well-insulated from the din of the traffic on Highway 6 by that picket fence. Here, you eat under the open sky beyond white plastic tents above you, your meal lit by those fairy lights and the glowing, bellowing belly of the food truck itself.
Inside, Sakun Mehra — who goes by Ginny (pronounced like "Guinea") — works into the long hours of the night most days as he bakes chicken and naan in a tandoor, chops vegetables like the strips of jalapeños that garnish the tandoori chicken platters, and scoops heaping servings of emerald-green saag paneer into Styrofoam bowls before handing them out the window to eager customers below. Cooking this way is in Mehra's blood: His father, Vinod Mehra, owns the cult favorite Desi Grill and More food truck that's painted with the same white-and-red color scheme as Tandoori Nite, but which parks each evening on Veterans Memorial near FM 1960.
Mehra the elder is known for grinding his own spices, and his son refers to him reverently as a master chef. But Mehra the younger isn't doing too badly for himself at his own dhaba, which is an Indian term for a type of low-key, informal Punjabi restaurant that's generally located — that's right — directly next to a gas station.
In the evenings, Punjabi music drifts out of the food truck among the alluring smells of Pakistani and Indian food: cumin, fennel, garlic, ginger, cloves, star anise and the sweet, yeasty scent of fresh naan. No other cuisine quite touches Indian when it comes to vibrancy of color in the dishes — jewel tones of carnelian red, topaz yellow and malachite green — or immediacy of flavor, flavor that rushes and spirals with glorious, dizzying intensity and infuses every pore of your body. You absolutely soak in Indian food; you don't really leave a brasserie smelling like steak-frites.
A table full of dishes at Tandoori Nite looks like a spread of precious gems, their mingling fragrances drifting straight up toward you and nearly pulling your head back down with them. Goat korma is served in a thick, buttery sauce that's a golden yellow, its sweetness cut by the gamy richness of the dark, lusciously fatty meat and enhanced even further when sopped up with some jalapeño-studded pieces of bullet naan. Truly excellent saag paneer is creamy, earthy and vegetal, with soft licks of paneer cheese spreading across your tongue with every third or fourth bite. Chana masala offers the gentle give of chickpeas that have been cooked down in a sour-sweet sauce of tomatoes, garlic, chile peppers and the dried powder of two fruits, mango and pomegranate.
You can BYOB here — and even buy a six-pack or two from the gas station a few steps away if you forgot your beer at home — and it's highly recommended, as nothing pairs quite so well with Indian food as a good IPA. One night saw a friend and me splitting chicken curry and an array of creamy, slightly spicy vegetable dishes between crisp, refreshing gulps of mild Samuel Smith India Ale. If you're not a drinker, however, don't miss Tandoori Nite's sweet lassi, which has the consistency of slightly frothy heavy cream with the tangy finish of yogurt.
The signature tandoori chicken comes in two sizes: full and half, the latter of which is enough to split between two people. The hue of the chicken's baked flesh mirrors its preparation, the ferocious color of flames and fiery cayenne pepper, although it's less spicy than these tones would imply. The chicken carries more of a paprika sweetness to it than anything else, and this is a common element in much of Tandoori Nite's cooking: Although you may expect it to be spicy, it's mostly not. Even the bullet naan's jalapeños are mild, offering more texture to the bread than anything else.
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This could be either a turn-on or a turn-off for diners, depending upon your personal tolerance for spicy food. If you generally find Indian or Pakistani cuisine to be too hot, Tandoori Nite caters to your taste. If you're a spice-hound, you'll find yourself needing to eat the fresh jalapeño strips and neon-green chutney served with the tandoori chicken to satisfy that craving.
And then there are simply some dishes that don't come together at all. The fish masala is too sweet, the tomatoes not tempered nearly enough by the heat and depth that should come off the masala's chiles, ginger and curry. Mattar paneer has more of the silky paneer cheese found in the spinach dish, but none of the earthy, musky sweetness of cumin or garam masala.
These complaints are few and far between, however. By and large, Tandoori Nite is a solid dinner destination and one that's worth the journey west from downtown, not only for the dishes that are praiseworthy — and especially the all-vegetarian dishes that occupy most of the left side of the menu — but for the ambience of the place. Yes, you can certainly take your food to go, packaged in sturdy plastic containers that keep it hot for up to 30 minutes (and it seems as if roughly half of Tandoori Nite's customers do). But the real draw here is eating an Indian feast alfresco with a group of friends in the balmy summer weather that mimics India's own climate, listening to the Punjabi music lilt through the night air and sipping a sweet lassi for dessert.