To experience a bit of India in San Luis Obispo, just open the doors to Taj Palace and let the aromas work their magic. Let yourself revel in the warmth of redolent spices, the fragrance of basmati rice, the comfort of freshly baked naan bread.
In 1994, brothers Amrik Singh and Raja Singh moved from Orange County to open Taj Palace on Foothill Boulevard. They had searched for a place to open their own restaurant, and the Central Coast provided them that opportunity, as well as a welcoming place to raise their families.
“We’ve been so happy here – it’s such a wonderful community,” said Raja Singh, known as “Raj” to the restaurant’s many longtime regulars. (He handles front-of-the-house duties, while his brother heads up the kitchen.)
The Taj Palace menu largely reflects the Singhs’ native Punjabi cuisine from northern India.
The seductively complex flavors of the region are on full display, and there’s little doubt as to their authenticity. Busloads of Indian tourists travelling through routinely stop for “the real taste of home,” Raj Singh said.
While Indian food relies heavily on spices, Taj Palace rarely takes the mouth-burning approach. The artistry comes in mixing and developing layers of flavor. (However, if you prefer a little kick, just let your server know.)
Especially popular at Taj Palace are the tandoori dishes – so named for the traditional tandoor, or, clay oven, in which they cooked. Options include chicken, lamb and jumbo shrimp marinated in herbs and spices.
Also fired up in the oven are more than a dozen tandoori breads. Some are meant as a side order for a family-style meal, while some are hearty noshes on their own.
Most are variations of naan, a type of flatbread. Order your bread plain or buttered, sprinkled with garlic or cilantro, or stuffed with ground meat, spiced onions or almonds and raisins.
A serving of fluffy, delicate basmati rice is a must at Taj Palace. For a side dish, opt for plain rice —especially good for enjoying every bit of luxurious sauces — sprinkled with cumin seeds or made with peas and saffron.
As an entrée, go for basmati rice with meats, vegetables or egg.
Other favorites on the menu are chicken tikki masala roasted in a mildly spicy sauce, lamb karahi stir-fried with bell pepper and tomatoes and chicken vindaloo with spices and potatoes.
You won’t find any beef at Taj Palace; the Singhs practice the Sikh religion, which forbids eating it.
If you eschew meat altogether, you will easily find options here. Many Taj Palace dishes are vegetarian, such as the popular palak paneer, featuring spinach cooked in herbs and topped with housemade cheese.
Some are vegan as well, including an eggplant bengan bhartha, a lentil daal maharani and potato (aloo) dishes with peas or cauliflower.
If you’re new to Indian food, or just can’t decide on a single dish, avail yourself of Taj Palace’s buffets. They’re offered daily for lunch, dinner on Mondays, and for lunch and dinner on most holiday weekends. The changing lineup of about six to eight dishes presents a good sample of this appealing cuisine.
Take a ladle of basmati rice, a helping of chicken tikki masala, a dollop of vegetable korma – then let your taste buds be transported 7,726 miles away.
795 Foothill Blvd., San Luis Obispo
805-543-0722 or tajpalacesanluisobispo.com
Hours: Daily, including holidays; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5 to 10 p.m.
The scene: This comfortable, unassuming restaurant can seat a variety of groups. Reservations are recommended/requested for parties of four or more.
The cuisine: The complex flavors of India are on full display in this menu. Buffet served daily for lunch, Monday dinner, and most holidays; regular menu always available, plus beer and wine.
Expect to spend: Almost all entrées $10 to $15; lunch buffet $10.95, dinner buffet $11.95. Holiday buffet prices vary.