Inexpensive excellence can be found in Tempe

Curry Corner $$
1212 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe

Rarely do I take restaurant suggestions from 11-year-olds, but this sixth grader, who knows my passion for food, was determined that I go to Curry Corner. “Oh yeah,” I said, “What’s your favorite thing to eat there?” Though she enthusiastically listed several different items, she had me at the first thing she said. “Tikka Masala fries.” When I looked up directions to the restaurant, I discovered it had been featured on Guy Fieri’s show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” on Food Network, all the more reason to go.

Curry Corner, located in Tempe near Arizona State University, is a Pakistani and Indian food restaurant serving a cuisine they lovingly refer to as Indo-Pak. It’s a family affair dedicated to great food at great prices, and they have a huge student following. Their motto, “inexpensive elegance” is emblazoned on their staff t-shirts, and much appreciated by student budgets.

Like most ethnic restaurants whose focus is food, there’s not much emphasis on ambiance and décor, and there doesn’t need to be. People aren’t there to be charmed; they are there to be fed. A big screen TV silently plays videos of Indo-Pak cooking, and there’s a portable sound system playing the music of the region. I do notice that the kitchen is about the same size as the dining area. They must need all that kitchen space to produce all that flavor.

Though there are dishes that aren’t spicy (most of them are) they are still spiced. That is because dishes from this region are layered with multiple spices, six or seven to a dish, and even if they don’t have a hot chili or hot curry in the mix, they still have a lot of spice flavor. This is what makes Indo-Pak food so popular among its fans, and so unloved among those with milder palates.

Over the course of several visits, here is what I had:

Tikka Masala Fries $5.50 (pictured above)
(Fries tossed in house masala sauce, topped with feta cheese)

This is the dish that brought me here and though it is listed as an appetizer, could have been its own main course entrée. Out comes a golden brown pile of seasoned fries falling off the plate, all drizzled with a creamy sauce and crumbles of feta. It’s the kind of thing that makes your eyes roll back as you take your first bite. I have now learned to always take restaurant advice from an 11-year-old Pakistani girl. These fries are a must try.

Samosas (3 pieces) $3.50
(Crispy pastries stuffed with a spicy blend of potatoes and peas)

Here is another appetizer that can easily be shared by two or three people. The samosas are big, crisp, piping hot, and served with two dipping sauces, one is a sweet and sour tamarind, and the other is a cool yogurt with mint. Like the fries, this dish is spicy – but not in a hot way. There is a lot of flavor going on. The pastry crust is hearty and crisp.

Tandoori Chicken Tikka $9.00
(Marinated leg and thigh of chicken grilled over charcoal)

Much to my delight, when this plate comes, it’s actually two legs and two thighs, and as with all entrées, is also served with your choice of basmati rice or naan bread. This is a lot of quality food for under $10. Should I also mention it’s fantastic? The chicken is marinated overnight in tandoori spices, then skewered and roasted in a very hot tandoori oven. This dish was featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

Fresh Karahi – chicken, lamb or beef $9; goat $11
(Chunks of meat cooked with onions, tomatoes, yogurt, ginger, garlic and homemade spices)

Karahi is a cooking method utilizing a thick, deep, circular pot which is ideal for stews. Of course, I chose goat (a kosher animal by the way), because how often do you get to choose goat, and I love the gamey flavor. You could taste every single ingredient, and the meat was so tender. I would mix bites with basmati rice sometimes and other times just eat the stew by itself. I also used their delicious naan bread to soak up the wonderful gravy. As I finished, a single tear ran down my cheek. Though this was a joyful experience, I don’t think it was a tear from joy, but rather a tear from the spicy curry. This one is hot!

Palak Paneer $7.50
(Freshly chopped spinach greens (palak) cooked with homemade (paneer) cheese)

The menu goes on to describe this dish as the pride of the Punjabi farmland. It’s a vegetarian entrée, finely pureed to almost a thick soup, with chunks of very mild cheese swimming in it. It is not spicy hot, but wow, are there a lot of spices in it. It is great with naan or rice and very healthy. Curry Corner offers a long list of vegetarian dishes.

Punjabi Handi – chicken $9; lamb, beef, goat or fish $11
(Traditional style handi made with onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic)

Handi, like karahi, is the name of a cooking vessel, it is deep and used primarily for stews. I wanted to try a lamb dish and just like the menu said it would be, it was cooked to perfection. There were large pieces of lamb swimming in a spicy sauce – perfect over rice or with naan. No tears this time, but it was spicy and absolutely delicious.

Curry Corner sits in the middle of a tiny group of mostly ethnic shops and a tattoo place. The first thing you notice when you get out of your car is this wonderful aroma. You know you’re in for good food when you can smell it before you shut your car door. The staff is friendly, some are family, and its focus is great food that won’t break a student’s budget. The customers are widely diverse, all races and backgrounds even though the food is from a specific world region. Why? Because people who love great food, know no borders. I was surprised by the number of people to whom I casually mentioned I was heading to Curry Corner said, “I love that place.” Go on down there adventurers; you will love it.

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