At lunchtime, the row of 15 brass chafing dishes along the wall at Tandoori Bites glows, brimming with aromatic yellow rice, deep red tandoori chicken, fried clusters of vegetable pakora, dahl and, of course, a bevy of curries. Navigating these alone takes discipline. How many hunks of lamb can you manage from the pot of rogan josh and still have room for the chicken tikka masala? That the restaurant handily wins the North Coast Journal’s Best Buffet is no surprise, especially at a scant $12 for lunch. Grazing from one end to the other and pulling apart the warm, blistered naan bread, curious first-time visitors become loyal regulars.

The dinner menu is a tour of popular favorites of Indian cuisine with emphasis on northern dishes, like garlic naan bread, rice dishes and curries spiced with garam masala. But there is regional and then there is regional, and the flavors at Tandoori Bites, if not the specialties themselves, go back to the Indian state of Punjab, the district of Jalandhar and the village of Athoula, from which the restaurant’s owner Gupreet Sohl and his chef and partner Dalbir Singh hail.

click to enlarge Fresh garlic naan and chicken tikka masala. - AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler
  • Fresh garlic naan and chicken tikka masala.

Sohl took over and renovated the building six years ago, adding a second tandoor oven. He first hired then 19-year-old Singh, who’s a distant cousin, to work in his Bay Area restaurant. Singh waited tables and followed up his shift watching the kitchen staff, learning to make foundational sauces, gravies and dishes. He experimented as he went, working on his own recipes and mastering cooking techniques (sometimes with help from YouTube) until he was satisfied with the results, his own versions of classic dishes.

There were (and sometimes still are) phone calls to his mother back in Athoula to ask how to make this or that dish. For example, when he was first learning to make the fresh cheese for saag paneer, “I talk to my mother,” says Singh. Sohl’s mother has had some input, too, helping Singh with his chicken curry, like the chicken kadhai with peppers and onions that is Sohl’s favorite. “Before, I think restaurant food, it’s better than a mother’s cooking. Now I think mother’s is better.” He adds with a shrug that what he cooks professionally will never compare to hers, to the labor and affection Indian women put into cooking for their families. And that’s fine.

click to enlarge Gurpinder Singh manages the fryer and tandoor, while chef Dalbir Singh cooks a pot of curry. - AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler
  • Gurpinder Singh manages the fryer and tandoor, while chef Dalbir Singh cooks a pot of curry.

“They just work super hard,” Sohl says of the kitchen staff. The food is indeed labor intensive, with chicken and goat curries cooking for hours. “I admire them. I couldn’t do it without them.” In fact, he claims he can scarcely boil an egg himself. “I tried to put the naan in the oven and my God, it was hot.” He’s not kidding — 400 F is average temperature for tubular clay ovens in which the slabs of dough bake stuck to the interior walls. “The hook is for removing … You have to stick [the raw dough] in with your hand — that’s the only way.” To his dismay, the bread slipped from the side of the tandoor and plummeted to the bottom.

Singh grins a little at the story and says that while it takes quite a bit of practice, Sohl is being modest. “He can do it,” he says. “Just not for customers.”

click to enlarge Gulab jamun. - AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler
  • Gulab jamun.
A solid plan of attack on the menu is to start with a fried appetizer, sample from the tandoor and then order some biryani and something with a rich sauce in which to dip your naan. Give Mrs. Singh’s cheesemaking lessons their due with an order of cheese pakora, fried in a spiced chickpea batter ($4.99). The tandoori chicken, marinated in yogurt and spices, then cooked on skewers in the dedicated meat tandoor, emerges exceptionally juicy ($9.99 half, $13.99 whole). The chicken biryani is another of Sohl’s favorite dishes — tender chicken and basmati rice fragrant with ginger, cloves, cardamom pods, cinnamon, turmeric, cashews, almonds and cilantro ($10.99). The butter chicken, creamy and sweet with onion and tomato, offers contrast in both its sauce and marinated meat charred in the tandoor ($10.99).

The sweets are few but mighty. A deep orange mango lassi with its yogurt tang may be exactly the thing to cool your palate with a hot vindaloo. (Truly, does India get half enough credit for inventing the smoothie in its perfected form?) But by all means, end your meal like a celebration with the caramel-colored gulab jamun ($2.99). The fried balls of milk and cheese, soaked in rosewater syrup and sprinkled with coconut, are lovely with a cup of chai.
Pin It

Related Locations


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Latest in Dining

About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

more from the author

Volunteer Orientation Food for People

Volunteer Orientation Food for People @ Virtual World

Mondays, 3:30-4:30 p.m. and Thursdays, 3-4 p.m.

© 2023 Humboldt Insider

Website powered by Foundation