It’s always a thrill to look around a crowded ethnic restaurant and realize my party is the only one that considers the menu exotic. It’s not an ironclad guarantee of excellent food, especially when it’s the only member of its species in town.
When there’s competition, whether in braciole or biryani, I want to find the ethnic places where people who grew up on the stuff go to eat. So when I walked into Hyderabad Biryani House and every customer except my guests appeared to be of Southeast Asian descent, my eyes grew wide.
When I left, having found my new favorite Indian restaurant, I allowed myself a discreet fist-pump. If you’re keen on Indian food but find the offerings at most local places tame, I recommend a journey to Hyderabad. The restaurant opened next to a Dairy Queen in June, so it’s barely begun to crawl, in restaurant years.
The room holds about 75 dining seats, and a couch where customers can wait for takeout orders. The menu offers many recognizable Indian standards, from breads to biryanis, plus about 15 dishes I’ve never seen offered in Western New York.
Even drinks offered discoveries. Besides the mango lassi yogurt shakes, I found masala buttermilk ($2.99), a cooling savory drink. It’s buttermilk with ginger, chopped green chile, cilantro and toasted mustard seeds, served over ice, a savory, salty dairy shake that did an admirable job of cooling the heat. (Hyderabad’s default heat level is a notch up from local standards, though most dishes can be mellowed at request.)
An unusual array of egg dishes included a masala omelet ($3.99), including cilantro, onion, bell pepper and green chile, seasoned with turmeric and garam masala.
I tried another called egg kothi parota ($8.99), based on torn-up bits of parotha, the wheat bread, scrambled with eggs, onions, chiles and cilantro into a light, fluffy mound whose texture and spices left me wondering what turkey stuffing would be like in Bangalore.
My tour of the unfamiliar continued with egg bajji ($6.99), an appetizer of halved hardboiled eggs fried in spiced chickpea batter. Fried to a non-greasy golden brown, like other fried items, the curry flavor brought to mind deep-fried deviled eggs, without the mayonnaise.
Another simple, well-executed fried dish was gobi 65 ($7.99), cauliflower in a savory chickpea crust, orange with chile powder that gave placid cauliflower a rakish edge.
Vada were crispy lentil-batter doughnuts with fluffy interiors, served with a pair of dipping sauces – spicy tomato chile ketchup and fresh coconut chutney – and a zippy little bowl of sambar, the lentil-based vegetable soup. It was a delicious reminder of how much India I have left to discover.
Vegetable pakoda was shavings of onion and bell pepper dipped in chickpea batter and fried with curry leaves. It was presented as a tangled thicket that we tore apart and dunked in chutneys, reminding me of Ted’s onion rings at their best, with more-adventurous ketchup. Another shockingly good vegetarian dish was kadai paneer ($10.99), cheese cubes in smoky onion-tomato gravy.
Manchurian dishes are Indian-Chinese hybrids, and chicken Manchurian ($9.99), boneless chicken chunks battered, deep-fried and then wok-tossed with scallions, cilantro, chile, ginger, garlic and soy sauce, was General Tso’s chicken without the sweet goo.
Biryani, basmati rice pilafs, are a house specialty. Hyderabadi chicken dum biryani ($10.99) was a tender, bone-in leg and thigh hidden in a metal bowl of fluffy, fragrant rice topped with a hardboiled egg and sliced onion. It arrived with two sauces, a yogurt spiked with crunchy cucumber and onion, and a spicy chile gravy with coconut and peanut.
Vijayawada boneless biryani ($11.99) repeated the success, except with battered chicken chunks under the rice. Gongura chicken ($12.99) was bone-in chicken chunks cooked in a green sauce tangy with hibiscus leaves.
Thangdi kabob ($10.99) is a foursome of chicken drumsticks roasted in a clay oven, or tandoor. Unlike most tandoori chicken around here, the chicken was flavorful all the way to the bone, with a garam masala aroma and sticky spice coating that was finger-licking good. An herbed yogurt sauce added tangy herbal heat.
Breads were skillfully prepared as well, including onion kulcha ($2.99) studded with spiced onion chunks and cilantro, and basic butter naan ($1.99) that served ably as a gravy-mopper. I haven’t even covered the dosas, huge crispy-edged crepes that come in a variety of forms ($5.99-$11.99), from buttery and cheesy to filled with spiced potato. They were solid versions.
Kheer (rice pudding) with pistachio and halwa (warm candied carrot shreds) were amiable desserts (both $4.99).
Service was swift, even if our rookie server had to return from the kitchen with questions to clarify our order. Despite ordering a huge array of dishes, I paid the bill about 75 minutes after sitting down. Dishes top out at $12.99, except for a full tandoori chicken ($17.99). Beer and wine is coming, but not available yet.
From bread to biryanis, chefs Niru Pan and Tamil Selvan offered Indian food cooked with precision and verve. More spices, not just more spiciness, though plenty of that, too. You may find whole cardamom pods or star anise in your curry. Yuck? Well, you can stick to Hyderabad’s tandoori chicken, palak paneer and naan, if that’s all you want from Indian food.
Discovering such exotic flavors along the plaza-lined suburban banks of Transit Road, in Clarence no less, left me feeling luckier than Christopher Columbus. He found an unexpected continent. I got to explore the spices of India.
Hyderabad Biryani House - 8 plates (out of 10)
New Clarence restaurant offers deep dive into vivid flavors of Indian cuisines.
WHERE: 5445 Transit Road (south of Klein), Clarence, 639-2255
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers $4.99-8.99, biryanis and rices, $4.99-12.99, entrees $7.99-17.99.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.