The other Hindu place on Calle 42
Going for the hot stuff
at the Taj Mahal
by Eric Jackson
For awhile in the late 90s, Panama City had two Indian restaurants, the Calcutta and the Paladar Hindu. The latter proved ephemeral, even though it was excellent, in a Calle Alberto Navarro locale that has seen a lot of good restaurants come and go. The Calcutta was kitty-corner from the El Carmen Church before and after the Paladar Hindu's time, but it didn't last through the turn of the century economic free fall that took such a heavy toll on the capital's restaurants.
A few months back on Calle 42 the proprietors of the Calcutta of old opened a new Indian place, which I promptly visited and reviewed. I liked it --- a lot better than their old place, in fact --- and said so in this column.
In the Internet groups and among friends of mine the reviews of that place were mixed but more often favorable than unfavorable. But one particularly scathing review came through an email group from a person whom I know to be dishonest just about the time that another new Hindu restaurant was opening a few doors up the street.
That new place is the Taj Mahal. I stayed away for a few months for a variety of reasons --- sometimes I was broke, other times I had other things to review, and I didn't want to review two Indian restaurants so close in time together. Plus, quite frankly, if the blast from the man I don't trust was a salvo in a no-holds-barred competition I didn't want to be caught participating in it.
Finally, however, I have taken the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal. So am I to make comparisons? Well, to a certain extent I can and will, but in many other respects I can't. See, I went to the other place with a party of four and we ordered different things and shared, but the very spicy stuff was by common agreement excluded. I went to the Taj Mahal by myself, and intending to order something vindaloo if they had it.
For those of you who have never acquired the taste for vindaloo, suffice to say that in its extreme it will turn your mouth, lips and gums rubbery and burn on the way in and on the way out. I was looking to turn down the heat a notch or two from that oral surgery anesthetic standard, but my intention was to order something a lot spicier than my mama or the the friends with whom I went to the other place would tolerate.
They do vindaloo in several ways at the Taj Mahal, and I ordered vindaloo chicken, with some garlicky naan bread and some veggie samosas as an appetizer and tea to drink. To start they brought out some crispy wavers and an assortment of three sauces, one of which was this pale green fiery stuff. Here we had the eye-watering, sinus-clearing sort of thing I was looking for on this evening.
The samosas were very good. You could make a fine vegetarian meal of those in themselves, but of course for the meatless they have a lot of other selections on the menu as well.
The vindaloo was milder than I have generally experienced. Maybe that was my fault for telling the waiter that I didn't want it at maximum spiciness, or maybe it's because they turn down the heat because capitalinos tend to prefer sort of bland food, or maybe it was a combination of these things. Next time --- and there will be a next time --- I'll try to get them to make it just a bit hotter. That said, I really did like their vindaloo chicken.
In any case there was no problem maintaining the fire. I also had the naan and the selection of sauces that they brought in at the start, including that green flame. This one of several of the establishment's versions of naan reminded me of another sort of bread in another tradition, a garlic and salt bagel from Ann Arbor's old Bagel Factory. Some might have found it a bit too salty, but I could appreciate the mix of flavors. At my leisure I tore off bits of naan and dipped them in the various sauces, including, every now and then, scooping up a generous dollop of the hottest one.
The bill came to about $20 and the dinner was worth it. They have a bar and I could have ordered something relatively cheap or something more expensive, but I wasn't there to drink.
Do I want to compare the Taj Mahal with the other place? In the all-important aspect of food, each would come out winning a point here or there over the other and I'd have to visit each place a lot more times before I could even think of doing a fair "star rating" comparison, were I into that sort of thing. The Taj Mahal is slightly more expensive. They both have good service. The decor at the Taj Mahal is more sumptuous, and while dining alone I really did appreciate the Bollywood music videos they played on their screen and sound system in the dining room. Neither of these establishments meets barrier-free design requirements, but at least the Taj Mahal is on the ground floor if you are considering a visit with somebody who's frail or in a wheelchair.
I like the Taj Mahal and I like the other place too. I sure do hope that the pitiless and difficult realities of the restaurant business allow them both to thrive.