Tunnel Explorer: Deli Deluxe

I do most of my tunnel exploring blind. Figuratively. Though the low light is beginning to take its toll. What I mean is, I typically just stumble around down there until something looks interesting, or until I've walked far enough that my breadcrumbs are nearly used up. The thought of getting turned around down there, wandering aimlessly like Link in The Lost Woods, is terrifying. North...West...South...West...

Where was I? Oh, yes. I mostly find my own way down there, but am occasionally given a tip by another Downtown Daniel Boone. My most recent suggestion came by way of a former coworker, Palak, who pointed me toward Deli Deluxe.

Deli Deluxe has taken over the spot once grimly occupied by Flavors, ostensibly a standard-fare deli. That's not why I was there. I was there because Palak had told me that the Indian side of the menu was good, better than my previous go-to for subterranean saag, Rico Mexican Food. We'd made plans to meet there for lunch, but she had a baby instead. Congratulations, Palak!

I got the impression that it's a rather small contingent that orders from the Indian side of the menu, as the owner seemed simultaneously excited and nervous when I inquired as to what was good. After some deliberation (I was leaning toward chana masala, but the entire staff championed the chicken tikka), I settled on Vada Pav and the recommended chicken tikka. The owner had stepped away to attend to something in the back, but came rushing up as he heard the cashier ask if I wanted medium or mild. "Indian Medium is very hot," he said. "Very, very hot."

After assuring him that I knew what I was getting myself into, he grinned broadly and began describing the entire menu in detail, telling me what I should get next time, and his initial hesitation gave way to his obvious enthusiasm. I don't know what he was hesitant about in the first place, as everything I tried was easily in the upper echelon of tunnel food.

The Vada Pav, a bun stuffed with a patty of fried potato, seemed almost like an Indian kolache. Its bun was yeasty and yielding, its potato filling earthy and mildly sweet. I wished that the fritter had been slightly crisper outside, though its lush interior was beguiling enough to make that a minor quibble. The chutneys swiped on the bun -- a vibrant and verdant cilantro on bottom, a sweet tomato and garlic affair with a spicy kick on top -- were similarly captivating. They sparked and popped, their immediacy making the creeping duskiness of the cumin in the filling seem like a final surprise, emerging only as its brasher cousins quieted down.

The chicken tikka was fine, though I'm not the dish's biggest fan. Its chicken portion seemed a bit ungenerous, with three mid-size chunks of chicken a-swim in a masala that was simultaneously slightly thin and slightly chunky, tasting mainly of tomato and with a slight grease-sheen. The tangy reliance on tomato flavor gave way to a twinge of coriander, a simple but pleasant spicing, and a rich, buttery undercurrent. The chicken itself was tender, deeply flavored from its marinade, and bearing the slightly smoky bite that speaks of tandoor.

I was glad for the filaments of onion served alongside, gigged with chile powder, cilantro and black pepper, which brought a wanted crunch and a slight bite to add dimension. Long, elegant threads of basmati, perfectly textured and just dusted with cinnamon, were lovely on their own, their soft, mild nuttiness a worthy foil for the tikka.

I also enjoyed the simple, thin raita. Not much more than yogurt and carrot, it was creamy and cool, with a bit less tang than I might have liked, but pleasant nonetheless.

The only disappointment came in the naan, though I hadn't expected otherwise. Clearly a prefab affair, it was useful only as a swiping mechanism for the overgenerous (in ratio more than in portion) masala.

Palak also told me that Deli Deluxe serves fresh chai, and a selection of Indian breakfast items, and I'm excited to go back to try both. I have a somewhat serious chai obsession, rivaled only by my fixation on international breakfast foods. If I can feed both monkeys within a few minutes' walk of my office, I'll be very happy indeed.

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