In other parts of the country, “Indian food” is a monolithic, all-encompassing concept. Not so in the South Bay, where foodies are expected to know their northern curries from their southern dosas.
The new Steps of India seeks to hone that curry consciousness even further, billing its cuisine as Northwest Frontier fare. That’s a good hook for this area, especially as it lands in a crowded field of South Bay Indian restaurants. Even right in its Cambrian Park neighborhood, just down the street on Union Avenue, Rangoli has long held court as the most popular Indian cuisine this side of Amber India.
And if you notice some similarities, that’s because Claudia Alvarado, a chef at Rangoli for the last four or five years, is now at Steps of India. Alvarado has brought over the upscale and sometimes unusual approach to traditional dishes, but with an $8 buffet available every day, lunch in particular is quite a deal.
The new digs are small, and the buffet and dinner menu are—for now—limited. It turns out that Northwest Frontier eating is not all that different from the lineup that lovers of traditional northern Indian offerings. But some regional touches, along with Alvarado’s flair for intriguing tweaks to classic recipes, make Steps of India stand out.
The lobster samosa ($6), for instance, will surprise most lovers of Indian cuisine. With a shell at just the right level of crispness, and served in halves, it’s a surprisingly subtle and elegant starter, far more complex than the static lumps of potato and spices that often pass for appetizers.
There’s an unexpected approach, too, to the chicken saag ($10), but this one is less successful. It’s too creamy by half—the sauce is way too close to pesto, even for this Italian—and in fact the overreliance on creaminess is my only real knock on the food here.
Elsewhere, though, there are some excellent, fairly traditional dishes, just offbeat enough to make jaded South Bay Indian-food regulars do a double-take. Chicken vindaloo is the barometer by which I’m willing to judge an Indian restaurant (much like the burrito for Mexican places), and the vindaloo at Steps of India ($10) is terrific.In general, as a heat junkie I was pleased to see the level of attention paid to spiciness here. Our waiter asked specifically whether we’d like the dishes mild, medium or spicy, and spicy had the kick that I
demand. (I might go “extra spicy” on the vindaloo next time, just because I’m nuts.) Even at the lunch buffet, where the main dishes are generally never spicy, in order to appeal to the widest possible mix of customers, the chicken tikka masala had an impressive bite. The chile chicken was sweet and tangy but, again, very nicely spiced.
The vegetable dishes stand out, as well. The chana masala ($9) is some of the best I’ve had in this area, not too soupy and perfect with the breads. It avoids the overdose of onion and tumeric or garlic that typifies the dish in many restaurants, where they seem to worry that it won’t be flavorful enough. But it’s supposed to be simple, sort of a perfect delivery system for chickpeas, and that’s what it is here. As much as Alvarado likes to turn up the spice, he can show restraint at just the right time.
I’m not normally a fan of dessert at most Indian restaurants, but the mango custard here was fantastic—the kind of pudding that sticks to your spoon, with bright notes of fresh fruit. After the richness of the food, it was refreshing and the perfect closer to the meal.
Steps of India has only been around a month—there’s not even any art on the walls yet. But with proven talent in the kitchen and an angle that should make lovers of Indian cuisine take notice, it’s in a good position to find its niche.