I have something of a love-hate relationship when it comes to going out for Indian food. On the one hand, I do like it (though ironically, despite growing up in a family where traditional South Indian food was on the menu daily, I actually hated it until I was in high school). On the other hand, I became spoiled on the cheaper, better variety when I worked in India for 3 years, and inevitably, I always end up comparing what I’m eating to what mom used to make, which ends in disappointment every time. That being said, we do end up going out for it quite a bit, either because I’m visiting siblings and they want to go, or a co-worker wants me to take them to a place that’s good.
In this post, I’ll referee a food fight between two popular joints representing the Indian food scene in Houston and Fort Myers, Florida. Houston metro has the eighth largest Indian-American population in the United States, and is home to literally hundreds of Indian restaurants. Fort Myers, on the other hand, has only one. Seems like an unfair fight, right? Read on to see who comes out on top.
You may be wondering why the Texas entrant is from Houston, and not Dallas. Dallas-Ft. Worth, after all, has a higher Indian-American population than Houston, and there’s literally half a dozen Indian restaurants within a 5-minute radius of my house. The reason is simple – my wife and mom are both great cooks, so why spend money going out when you can get a superior version for free at home? In any event, I do plan on reviewing a couple of my favorite Indian joints locally over the next few months. Rohan, if you’ve got a candidate, send me the details and I’ll check it out and/or incorporate your review! As for why Fort Myers, I have family that lives there, so it’s the choice by default.
First up, representing the Lone Star State – Paradise Biryani Pointe.
- 5711 Hillcroft Avenue, Suite B4, Houston, TX. Other locations throughout the country.
- Hours: 11:30 A.M.-11:30 P.M. daily except Tuesdays
- Price: $15-25 per person, without alcohol
Directions: From Southwest Freeway (US 59), exit Hillcroft and go north. Restaurant is in a shopping center on the right-hand side just past the intersection with Harwin Drive. Note, if you are coming southbound on 59, you can turn right at Harwin instead (before you reach Hillcroft), and turn right into the back of the shopping center just before the intersection with Hillcroft.
Located in a nondescript Indian-centric shopping center at the corner of Hillcroft and Harwin in southwest Houston, Paradise Biryani Pointe specializes in Hyderabadi cuisine. Hyderabadi cuisine is a variant of South Indian cuisine (actually closer to the Punjabi/Mughlai cuisine that you find in most Indian restaurants in the U.S.) which hails from the city of Hyderabad, a city in south-central India and the common capital of the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The food there is famous for two things in particular – dum biryani, a dish of basmati rice mixed with meat and/or vegetables and slow-cooked in a clay pot, and atomic levels of heat. In fact, Andhra cuisine is generally considered the hottest in all of India. So beware if spicy food isn’t your thing. I heard someone claim that the Paradise Biryani Pointe chain was created by persons associated with the original famous Paradise Food Court biryani restaurant and tea stall in the old quarter of the city, a claim I have been unable to verify. Incidentally, if you go to Hyderabad, Paradise is a must visit for the biryani and the chai. You can get a packet of biryani enough for 2+ people and a cup of tea for about 250 rupees ($4.25). They have locations across the city if you don’t have time to go to the Old City.
We came in about 6:00, and were greeted to a completely empty restaurant. The ambience does leave something to be desired. No real atmosphere at all, with that genuine strip mall vibe, though then again, dive-ish places like this tend to be pretty good, in my experience.
There actually is a very good reason why most Indian restaurants will be completely empty if you walk in at 6:00 – a lot of Indians tend to eat later than most Americans. In fact, my wife and I usually don’t eat dinner until about 8:00. The only reason we came in so early on this day is that we were only in Houston on business, and needed to get back to Dallas that same night. Trying to escape Houston heading north at 6 P.M. on a Friday is a fool’s errand, so we decided to eat first and wait for traffic to die down.
Anyway, though Paradise is known for its biryani, my wife and I decided to go with the butter chicken instead, with a side of butter naan (basically a flat bread). I also ordered a mango lassi (plain yogurt mixed with sugar and mango pulp) to drink, though I had already wolfed it down before the food came out.
Incidentally, if you’re unfamiliar with Indian food or a particular restaurant, butter chicken is usually a “safe” dish to order. It’s basically boneless chicken in a tomato cream sauce, isn’t overly spicy, and is hard to mess up, though it is a bit of a heavy dish. Also remember the cardinal rule of ordering Indian in the states – ALWAYS order your food “medium”, or “mild” if you’re a spice wuss. Every single Indian restaurant I’ve been to Stateside screws things up when you order “hot”. They just throw a bunch of extra chili powder into the pot, resulting in food that is screaming atomic hot, but with the real flavors that are critical to good Indian food drowned out. Anyway, this version of butter chicken was, I thought, a very good one. The sauce was nice and thick, perfect for dipping bread, and was nicely flavored with fenugreek. The chicken was also well cooked and boneless. And yes, it was hot, though not excessively so. I’d probably put this at about a 6 on a scale of 10, though be forewarned, after 3+ years eating at restaurants in Hyderabad, my definition of “hot” is probably different than yours. Paradise is also one of the very few Indian restaurants I’ve found in the U.S. that does butter naan correctly. It shouldn’t be paper thin like a crepe, but typically, butter naan here is way too thick and chewy, and loses the buttery flavor in the process. But here, the naan was perfect, not to thick, not to thin, and a perfect dipping appliance for the curry. I should also add, the mango lassi is also very good, thick and sweet.
In case you’re wondering, I have had the biryani here before, and found it OK, not great. It wasn’t that close a facsimile to the real thing at the real Paradise. Give it a try once if you’re here, though you may or may not want to order it again.
Rating: 3 1/2 stars. This experience probably warranted a 4, but I’ve also tried the Paradise that was near my house in Plano (recently closed), and found it much less impressive. In particular, we received lousy service at that outlet. Then again, Indian restaurants providing crappy service to Indians seems to be a common theme around here.
And now representing the Sunshine State – India Palace.
- 11605 Cleveland Avenue #20, Fort Myers, FL
- Hours: 11:30 A.M.-2:30 P.M. and 5:00 P.M.-10:00 P.M. daily except Monday
- Price: $20-30 per person, without alcohol
Directions: On the east side of US 41 just south of Page Field. From IH-75, exit Daniels Parkway and go west. Turn right on US 41 (Cleveland Avenue). The restaurant is in the back of a shopping center on the right, about a half a mile or so north of Crystal Drive.
I will start off by saying that “India Palace” is quite possibly the single most overused name for an Indian restaurant in the U.S. Every big city you go to, you’re going to find at least one, and probably more than one, joint called “India Palace” or some variation thereof. Anyway, India Palace does your typical North Indian Mughlai cuisine that you find at many Indian restaurants Stateside. Though it is often considered “traditional” Indian food, Mughlai cuisine actually didn’t make an appearance in India until the 16th century, after the Mughals invaded the country. It is especially known for its richness, as North Indian curries incorporate a liberal dose of butter, cream, and milk, though it is not nearly as spicy as the Hyderabadi variant.
The ambience is definitely superior to Paradise, with a nicely decorated interior featuring Indian-themed paintings and a larger dining room. We were here later, about 7:30, though it was still pretty empty. Being here during slow season in Southwest Florida, on a rainy night to boot, probably didn’t help.
I went with the standard butter chicken, and my wife ordered the shrimp korma. Both of us shared butter naan.
I will start off by saying that I violated the cardinal rule of ordering Indian food that I talked about earlier – never ever order “hot”. I did, and regretted it immediately. The dish was severely overpowered with chili powder, to the point where that was all you could taste. Good Indian food isn’t just about the heat, but about the mix of spices in general; if you can’t taste the herbs and spices, it pretty much destroys the entire taste of the dish. At least it was cooked to the proper consistency; there’s really little worse than a watery curry. The butter naan here fell victim to my usual complaint – baked too thick, to where it tasted like a thick tortilla. Don’t get me wrong, I love tortillas, but they are meant for enchiladas and burritos, not for dipping in curry. It just doesn’t work. My wife at least seemed to enjoy her shrimp korma (a very mild curry cooked with fruits and herbs), though my mom and all of my siblings didn’t care for their dishes, either. I tried a little bit of my mom’s vegetable samosa (a vegetable-filled turnover), and wasn’t overly impressed. It was crispy, but too heavy on the ginger and garam masala, leading to an unpleasant bitterness. On the other hand, the India Palace does make a good mango lassi, thick and sweet as it should be.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars. Turns out, it was an unfair fight. Texas wins, hands down. Then again, since India Palace is the only Indian restaurant in Fort Myers, you don’t have much choice, unless you want to drive all the way to Tampa or Miami.