I walk into the dark and ornately decorated restaurant and in seconds my senses are stimulated. The bold aromas of curry, spices, and freshly baked bread enter my nose and demand that my mouth water. Ahhh, Indian cuisine. It's my kind of comfort food. The tantalizing smells and rich and creamy flavors get me going every time.
While South Tampa and Seminole Heights may boast the most esteemed eateries in the way of American fusion, I believe it's safe to say that the unassuming USF neighborhoods shine in the name of Ethnic varieties- particularly Indian. Taj Indian Cuisine has been charming ethnic food-loving peeps since 1991. I can't say I'm too shocked that they've stood the test of time. I won't exclaim over their less than friendly service but I will definitely applaud them for their exceptional Indian fare.
These people set the bar high. In fact, I'd venture to say Taj is my favorite Indian joint in all of Tampa. There I said it. To back up my notion, I'll have you know they consistently win "Best Indian Restaurant in Tampa Bay" by both magazines and newspapers. If you weren't convinced before, I sure hope you are now. Oh, right, right...you want a review to drool over. I almost forgot.
Let's begin with the Papadum at Taj. Essentially, it's an Indian cracker. Served complimentary much like chips and salsa at a Mexican joint, papadum is one insanely delicious Indian restaurant perk. Addicting is an understatement. The crispy crackers are light and adorned with a yummy trio of vibrant chutneys. The mint and cilantro chutney is fresh and zingy, contrasting nicely with the kicked up and chunky mango chutney. There's also the tamarind chutney which gives off a powerful punch of sweet and tangy. Don't be surprised if you beg for another basket of this stuff. It's damn good.
Last week when I visited Taj, I was feeling like I should steer clear of the fried goodness. The papadum, basmati rice, and naan bread would already be more indulgent than what I believed my stomach could handle. Unfortunately, most of the appetizer menu consists of greasy, crunchy, bean, cheese, and meat-filled treats. So I reluctantly ordered the Bhel Puri. An interesting mixture of puffed rice, broiled potatoes, chickpeas, mint chutney, tomatoes, onion, and cilantro had fun taste and textural diversity but just didn't intrigue my tongue quite like their glorious samosas and paneer pakodas.
Between Chris, my brother, Patrick, and his fiance, Sloan, we ordered a few appetizing entrees. Because I'm a spicy food freak, I immediately went for the devilishly dark and divine Lamb Vindaloo. The thick and pungent curry sauce covered huge tender chunks of lamb and potatoes. Ordered hot, I wasn't minding the consequential runny nose. Boasting an intense depth of flavors, I can't say I've had a better Vindaloo than the one served at Taj. Perfection.
Oh butter chicken, you evil thing, you. The most decadent dish on the menu, Taj deems it a house specialty. It's no wonder why. They've surely created butter-loving monsters with this stuff. A curry-based cream and butter sauce drenches chicken. Pour it over basmati rice and you have a mound of Indian cuisine bliss. Although I'd prefer the chicken to be in larger pieces, Taj's butter chicken is an undeniable show-stopper.
A forkful of basmati covered in Chicken Bhuna was up next to my pleased palate. Cooked with fresh tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, fresh ginger, and spices, the chicken and veggie Indian stew-like creation was swooning us all. Standing out from the rest with the addition of peppers and fresh ginger, the taste was complex and oh so scrumptious. My first time with Bhuna...and certainly not my last. Thank you Taj, for introducing us.
The classic. The best-known. The always luscious. Chicken Tikka Masala. How I adore you so. It's Tandoori chicken's much more attractive and far more appealing younger sibling. Let me state, Taj knows Tikka Masala. Boneless marinated chicken roasts slowly-for hours on end in the tandoor. Then, it's sautéed with piquant spices and served drowning in an enticing masala curry sauce. If you've never feasted on Indian before, you simply must acquaint yourself with Tikka Masala first. Extra Dash of Les points awarded if you eat it at Taj.
We polished off every morsel of meat and every tidbit of veggies. But what about all of that succulent sauce that remained in the bowls? This...is why you order naan. It's like pita bread but so much better. You can't go to an Indian restaurant and neglect the naan. That'd be breaking a cardinal rule. Offering over 10 homemade naan varieties, Taj insists you partake. Some are stuffed with ooey gooey cheese and some with fragrant spiced potatoes. We chose the garlic stuffed naan. With just enough added zest, the garlic nann allowed our vindaloo, butter, and masala sauces to shine. Warm, soft, and flawlessly chewy, Taj makes one mean naan. That's a fact.
It's always such a difficult task to order only a few dishes at Taj. Their menu is extensive without being overwhelming and truly everything I've ever eaten has been tasty to absolutely divine. It's a place that I visit time and time again, always sticking with my tried and true favorites. Although I'm obsessed with their sauced up meats, I've heard their Biryani Rice is pretty righteous too. With chicken, beef, lamb, fish, lobster, goat, and tofu options, Taj aims to impress all carnivores and vegetarians alike. Go there now. You will not be disappointed.
***Just don't get turned off by the strip mall Taj sits in. I promise you'll thank me the second you take your first bite of papadum.