It was a beautiful afternoon. The temperature was climbing, but in September the blue sky already had an autumnal cast. Listening to Lana Del Rey’s latest (brilliant), I felt like I was in Austin. Fitting, as I was heading to a late lunch at Tarka Indian Kitchen, a fast-casual Indian-inspired spot on 19th street. Tarka is an Austin import, and when it opened the crowds came to like it was the second coming of Uchi.
Well, I’m happy to report the crowds were right. Tarka is a bright, chic, easy-to-love place for “fresh and flavorful Indian food that is also fast and affordable, “according to its website.
Authentic? Not even close. But I can appreciate fresh and flavorful anytime. And Tarka’s food is delicious.
I started with an appetizer of Chicken Pakoras. Chicken strips are coated in chickpea flour, fried, and served with a refreshing mint-tamarind-yogurt chutney. It’s a sizeable order for $4.50, enough for two to share. These little pops of flavor are something everyone will enjoy.
While lingering over my starter, waiting for my curry, I took in the surroundings. A gold mandala, a geometric figure representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism, pops from the orange walls. Chairs of cobalt blue offer a pleasing contrast. At Tarka, color is a big part of the appeal.
So is the friendly, helpful staff. Sure, you order from the counter, but they know their menu and can answer any questions. Like mine: “Do you have naan?” I didn’t see it on the menu, but there it was — regular or garlic — in the “add a little joy” section.
And Tarka’s garlic naan is joyful. It’s springy and warm like all naan should be. Its garlic flavor comes courtesy of real garlic, not an oil. It doesn’t rise in a tandoor, but still, I found myself wishing for more of the mint-tamarind sauce for dipping.
Just as I made that wish, my main dish arrived. Now, Chicken Tikka Masala isn’t going to be authentic anywhere, but it’s a crowd-pleaser. Tarka’s version certainly pleased me.
The lush tomato curry is infused with a soothing blend of Indian herbs and spices. Soothing, you ask? Sure — you can choose your spice level at Tarka, from mild to hot. Guess which I picked.
While I loved the Tikka, I’m surprised that I embraced the rice just as much. It’s simple, really — fragrant basmati rice, perfectly cooked (no mush) is flecked with cumin seed. Not too much; just enough to lift a common side dish to something extraordinary.
When the weather gets cooler, I’ll be back to try Tarka’s Madras Soup, a tomato-coconut soup cooked with Indian spices and finished with aromatics — onions, cumin, and garlic. (Think of the word “tarka” as you would “mirepoix.”) Lamb Kabobs, too, are on my list, along with a Biryani, or Indian fried rice.
If you’re looking for Indian flavors with a side of the “in” crowd, Tarka may be just the place you’re looking for.