One of the pleasures in writing about restaurants is finding Anchorage's undiscovered gems -- the strip-mall, mom-and-pop operations that are putting out good food in tiny kitchens without much public recognition.
Namaste Shangri-La, a Southeast Asian restaurant on Tudor, meets some of these criteria. It's smallish, family-run and located in a nondescript strip mall on Tudor -- but, based on my two recent visits, it's by no means going unrecognized. In fact, both times the restaurant was packed. So, Namaste Shangri-La is not an "undiscovered gem." It's just a gem.
I took my family for a weekday lunch and, at noon, nabbed the last table in the house. The place was bustling and the tantalizing smells coming from the kitchen gave us our first hint as to why.
We started with the Shangri-La appetizer sampler ($10.95) which includes a samosa (your choice of meat or vegetable), one piece of alu tikki and four pakoras. The alu tikki -- basically a potato pancake -- was fried to a crispy, deep brown with a creamy and fragrant center. The pleasantly flaky exterior of the samosa hid a lightly spiced filling of ground beef (keema) and peas. These were mild, fun to eat and a great Indian 101 appetizer for my 10-year-old culinary skeptic.
But it was the chicken pakoras that were the star of the plate. Crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, with a sly hit of spice and a pleasantly salty finish from the cornmeal flour coating -- these are addictive and created a mild skirmish among us to grab the last one. "They're like chicken nuggets but fancy," remarked my daughter, proving that kid-friendly food doesn't always have to be dumbed down.
Another winning dish was the chicken malai kabab ($15.95), which I ordered for my daughter expecting it to be on the bland side (so as not to offend her usually unadventurous palate). But I underestimated the power of a good marinade and a blazing hot tandoor. The chicken was flavorful and perfectly cooked -- juicy and with a nice char that can only be achieved with an open flame. The yogurt marinade lent a slightly creamy tang to the meat and the heap of cooked peppers and onions spiced the dish up perfectly (these were carefully picked off by my daughter). In the end, this dish was anything but bland.
I opted for the shrimp Rangoon ($17.95) and requested it hot (all dishes all come with a choice of heat level). The spice here was assertive and the first bite had me reaching for my water glass. But after a moment of sinus-clearing surprise, my palate quickly adjusted. This dish boasts abundant shrimp -- cooked to a nice firmness (I don't like any translucence in my shrimp) and the rich, tomatoey sauce had a bright, acidic zing.
My husband's lamb biryani ($17.95) was almost a hit, but the meat itself missed the mark. Cut into small chunks, the lamb was overcooked and a bit tough with all the sweetness cooked out. But the rest of the rice dish was rich in flavor. Studded with cashews, peas and subtle spices, it was a comforting and filling plate. Warning: I bit into no fewer than four whole cloves before I learned to approach the dish with caution and a fork. I love the flavor of clove but, undiluted, it's a palate killer. And it wasn't doing my dental work any favors either.
(Note: We ordered off the main menu but the restaurant does offer a lunch special. Ranging from $12.95 to $15.95, the special includes a vegetarian, chicken, lamb or shrimp dish with daal, rice and a house salad.)
We returned the following week, at 6 p.m. on a Thursday, and once again snagged the last table. This time we started with not one, but two orders of the chicken pakoras ($6.95) -- one for my daughter and one for the rest of us. They were everything we remembered.
I decided to give the lamb a second chance and ordered it in a vindaloo ($15.95). Unfortunately, again, I found the meat to be overcooked and even a bit fatty. I would have preferred larger cuts of the meat cooked to a rarer temperature. But, like the biryani, the rest of the dish made up for this shortcoming. Chunks of soft, buttery potatoes soaked in the zesty, vinegary sauce and were substantial enough for me to forget the meat. Like the Rangoon, the vindaloo has enough heat to wake up your tongue, but then it mellows quickly.
My older daughter ordered the tandoori shrimp ($17.95) and our server confided that it was her own favorite dish on the menu. Charlotte made short work of the hefty, charred shrimp and I was barely able to snag a taste. This dish was simple and satisfying and made almost sublime by the sweet buttery sauce that accompanied it.
Portions are generous at Namaste Shangri-La and our two meals resulted in a fridge packed with leftovers. Hopefully I won't offend the chefs when I confess that I jumbled all of the dishes together in one pot and re-heated it, casserole-style. The flavors worked beautifully together. A bite of spicy shrimp enlivened the gentler flavors of the biryani. A soft, spicy potato made a lovely little wrap when folded into a piece of onion naan. The chicken was nowhere in evidence at this meal because I had already eaten it the night before -- straight from the box while standing at the kitchen counter. While it made a good, lazy snack, its true destiny would be as the basis for a killer chicken salad.
While I appear to be late to the party, I'm glad to have discovered the fragrant, spicy and nuanced food of Namaste Shangri-La. I will be back, and next time I'm going to take a page out of my daughter's book. I'm going to order my own plate of chicken pakoras. Because sometimes, I don't like to share either.
?Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Location: 2446 E. Tudor Road
Contact: 907-569-3000 and namasteshangrila.com