Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Restaurant 39: Tangra Masala

RESTAURANT: Tangra Masala
LOCATION: 8709 Grand Ave, Flushing, Queens
DATE: June 12, 2005
FOOD: Chicken Hot and Sour Soup; Split the following - Chicken and Shrimp Pakoras; Chili-Goat (Dry); Tangra Masala Fish in Gravy
PRICE: $25.00

Every night as I leave work I hear it calling. In the days since my Sunday night visit to Tangra Masala in Flushing, I have found it nearly impossible not to suffer through the tortuously long subway ride to reach the warm embrace of this restaurant. Tangra Masala serves what is best described as “Chinese food as it’s made in India”. It’s an organic fusion, one brought about not by audacious chefs, but by naturally occurring geographical and cultural integrations, a de-facto culinary evolution that stays true to The Origin of Species. It’s Chinese food running an Indian temperature – mundane dishes created anew by levels of spice unknown outside of Delhi. It’s gastro globalization shimmering brightly. It’s, to put it simply, extraordinary.

Thomas Friedman might have been right to declare the world flat – at least culinary-wise, all boundaries have vanished. Tangra Masala’s staff is almost exclusively of Chinese descent. The clientele, in contrast, is nearly one hundred percent Indian (one obvious exception being this here blogger). But demographics aside, Tangra Masala’s cooking is the main aspect to notice. A menu that is expansive, but not daunting, shows dishes both familiar and unknown. Chinese restaurant standards like hot and sour soup, chicken and corn soup, and all sorts of fried rice, pop-up on the menu with the same commonplace recognition as elements on the Periodic Table. But there’s an entire section devoted to goat. And the dim sum is far from anything found near Canal Street. What becomes rapidly apparent, is that even the assumedly blasé dishes are not what they seem at Tangra Masala. A meal at Tangra Masala is like learning to eat Chinese food all over again.

The chicken hot and sour soup is as brash and untamed as postmodern poetry. Unlike the disastrous soup at Yeah Shanghai Deluxe, Tangra Masala infuses this traditional soup with a heavy and completely unexpected bout of pure heat. Tangra Masala is not for the meek and the hot and sour soup is the best example of this all-out fire. The soup’s mushrooms and chicken were perfectly cooked and added to the dish’s many layers. Such layering became a common theme throughout the meal.

But even as sensational as the hot and sour soup was, nothing else compared to the jaw-dropping chicken and shrimp pakoras. The pakoras are like an Indian hushpuppy – except larger and much more flavorful. The shrimp might have been the better of the two varieties, but the difference was negligible. The pakoras exemplified Tangra Masala’s layering of complex flavors. The balls are fried and use a mixture of spicy minced vegetables as their base. The chicken or shrimp, also seasoned, is then joined to this foundation. Biting into these is like diving into the ocean in mid-December – both send chills through the body. A sharp cilantro and hot pepper oil comes with the pakoras and a liberal sprinkling enhances the pakoras to even new levels. Astonishing, the flavors in one’s mouth constantly are in flux with this dish. From the initial touch of the oily exterior, to the bread-like smoothness inside, to the lasting zest left behind, this dish is unbelievable. If samosas, dumplings, and hushpuppies decided to mate, pakoras would be that love child.

The entrees nearly matched the supremacy of the pakoras. The goat, a meat which according to a recent New York Times article, is gaining in popularity, was by appearance and taste beef transcended. My only other experience with goat was Scott Conant’s delicious stewed capretto (kid) at L’Impero, but Tangra Masala served goat and not kid. The dish looked like beef and broccoli stripped of the greenery. Thin strips of pleasantly chewy goat had been elevated by robust red chiles. The heat of the dish seemingly escalated with each successive bite so that by the end, our waitress was refilling my water glass every few minutes.

The white fish in tangra masala sauce was equally outstanding. The red sauce has the consistency of honey and thus immediately brought to mind sweet and sour sauce. But tangra masala gravy is as much sweet and sour sauce as the Backstreet Boys are a “band”. In taste, the tangra masala was entirely unique. Fluent and glossy, this sauce challenged the palate while still harmonizing with the steamed fish. The fish was so plump and substantial, I initially believed a mistake had been made and we had been served chicken or pork. But there were no mistakes at Tangra Masala.

Starbucks recently expanded to France and there are now more McDonald’s abroad than in the U.S. Globalization permeates the world and every new chef wants to cut his or her teeth on fusion techniques. National borders may now have as much relevance to the modern world as Ptolemy’s model of the universe, but Tangra Masala is an indication that not all cultural mixes have negative results. Tangra Masala is a beacon, a reason to venture to Queens for something other than a flight. Just be forewarned – a beacon this excellent is impossible to forget. And the urge to jump on the E or F train may dominate your thoughts for days afterwards.

I might just have to go back tonight…

RATING: 9.0/10

1 comment:

tara said...

One of my favourite restaurants in Toronto is called Frederick's, a Chinese place run by Indians. Best chili chicken I've ever had. And now I must bug my grandmother to make some pakoras for me.