Summer visitors are back in Alaska and they’re eating, drinking and being merry as God and the visitor’s bureau intended. And while I love the hustle and bustle downtown, this is a time when I try to frequent restaurants off the beaten path. In summer, I migrate, bird-like, to the strip malls of Anchorage.
My favorite new entry in the category of “unassuming Anchorage strip mall houses culinary gem,” is Mandala, a tiny Indian Restaurant in the “Kings Row” mall on East Dimond. This modest spot was newly opened and just finding its feet when the pandemic upended the local dining scene. Mandala stayed open for takeout, and I’m so happy it survived.
I’ll admit, I am always in the mood for Indian food. From simple, flaky samosas stuffed with tender potatoes and peas, to rich, heat-filled curries, redolent with spice and tang, there’s a dish for my every mood and taste. It’s also the perfect cuisine for dining with vegetarians, which I do with increasing frequency. Almost any dish can be made meatless, and there’s nothing spartan about replacing a few bites of chicken with cubes of creamy, buttery paneer. And for the omnivore, shrimp, chicken and lamb are often featured, and in the case of Mandala, goat meat, which is a personal favorite of mine.
We recently had our first dinner party in a year and a half and decided to let Mandala do the cooking. I ordered liberally, opting for two types of pakoras ($8 for vegetable, $12 for chicken), veggie samosas ($7), palak paneer ($14.50), butter chicken ($16.50), lamb vindaloo ($19.50), chicken biryani ($17.50) and, of course, naan bread ($2.75). Lots and lots of naan bread.
I loved the pakoras — both vegetarian and chicken — with their crisp, golden coating. The distinctive nuttiness of the chickpea flour batter elevates these little fritters above your garden variety chicken nugget. The pakoras came with a minty green dipping sauce that I wanted to pick up and drink like a shot. It tasted the way fresh-cut grass smells, light and bright and summery. The veggie samosas were substantial, pillowy, and comforting. And the palak paneer, slow-cooked spinach in a comforting, creamy sauce studded with generous cubes of creamy cottage cheese, rounded out a satisfying meal for our vegetarian guests. These dishes felt as decadent as everything else we ordered.
And when it comes to decadence, few dishes can better define it than butter chicken. The decadence is right there in the name. it’s a bowl full of creamy comfort with just enough spicy kick to keep the dish in the curry department and keep me from dipping a grilled cheese sandwich into it.
I’ve been told that the lamb vindaloo was delicious but I wouldn’t know. It was pretty much gone by the time I got to it. So, you can do with that what you will.
But I forgave my hungry guests because I got two helpings of my favorite dish of the night: chicken biryani. I generally think of this dish as a straightforward but unexciting staple on most Indian menus. But at Mandala, it gets an upgrade. Aromatic, clove-scented rice was embedded with flavorful, savory bites of chicken. Hard-cooked eggs garnished the plate and become creamy and saucy as they steamed with the rice. On top of the whole delicious bed of biryani is a blanket of caramelized onions cooked to the very edge of burning, lending them a deep flavor that straddles sweet and charred. And then, perhaps my favorite thing in any Indian restaurant, a generous side of tangy, oniony yogurt raita, which brightened the subdued flavors in the dish and cooled the assertive ones.
I was excited to return for a dine-in experience the following week. I met my friend Sue for a late lunch and we had the place to ourselves. It’s a very narrow space in the middle of the mall, but it’s thoughtfully designed and decorated with faux brick, soft lighting and white tablecloths. Quiet jazz played through the sound system. It’s a peaceful, contemporary space that felt nice to slip into in the midst of a busy week.
We over-ordered with plans for leftovers, opting for tandoori shrimp ($24), alu gobi ($14.50), jaffreji goat ($18.50), and I couldn’t stop myself from ordering another chicken biryani because sometimes I’m “researching” and sometimes I’m just eating.
We loved the alu gobi, a herbaceous, substantial potato cauliflower dish. And while I enjoyed the flavor of the goat jaffreji, cooked in a thick, peppery sauce, I found the meat to be very difficult to eat. Goat can be a bit toothsome, but this dish was chewier than I like. Also, the goat was served bite-sized and on the bone which, of course, disappeared into the richly colored sauce. So, we had to carefully pick the bones out of the dish to avoid chomping into one. We finished the dish with our teeth intact but I’ll opt for lamb next time.
Service was attentive and subdued, in keeping with the serenity of the dining room. It’s clear that the restaurant operates with a small kitchen and a spare staff, so food takes time to arrive. We asked for our dishes to be brought out as they were finished, so we received our tandoori shrimp as an appetizer. It was a happy accident which I highly recommend because this dish — our favorite of the day — is one that you want to give your full attention to.
The dish comes to the table in dramatic fashion, sizzling on a hot skillet. The shrimp crackled and steam billowed up from the bed of onions and bell peppers. We risked burning our tongues and plucked up the sweet, buttery, charred shrimp. The vegetables are tangy and vinegary with a fiery kick. We could easily have made short work of a second order.
At the very best of times, the opening of a small restaurant is an act of optimism and courage. And we’re lucky to live in a city with a dining scene that abounds in both. Mandala survived a difficult first year with a combination of determination, hard work and a killer recipe for butter chicken.
11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch and 4-10 p.m. for dinner, Monday-Saturday
209 E. Dimond Blvd.