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It’s a hard restaurant to fit into a niche. Yes, it’s Indian fast food, but not that fast. Yes, the emphasis is vegetarian, but the chicken tikka masala may well be the best in the valley.
Tucked in an unassuming strip mall next to a Bojangles, Indika is like entering an entirely new country. Though the dining room is spartan—only a handful of tables dot the beige room, a counter up front for ordering—a cloud of spices draws you in and asks you to stay. Garam masala, cumin, a tinge of hot chili wafts from the kitchen to the main space and you can close your eyes and imagine that, yes, you are somewhere in India, not here in Roanoke. Welcome to Indika, welcome to India.
Opened last June by Binita Patel, Indika Café is a bare-bones, fast-food-styled café featuring dishes spanning the subcontinent with lots of Guajariti and South Indian vegetarian favorites. At Indika you order at the counter, choose a seat at one of the tables topped with only some napkins, plastic disposable cups and a jug of room temperature water. Silverware is plastic, your food is served on cafeteria trays on Styrofoam plates, the lighting is harsh fluorescent. Sound unappealing? Trust me, the magic is in the food, not the ambiance.
About 10 minutes after ordering, your food is brought out—and hopefully on your tray is one of the golden crisp masala dosas. Twice the size of its serving plate, the rice and lentil dosa (like a crepe, but crispier) is filled with potatoes seasoned with mustard seed, cumin and onion. Served with a sambar soup (lentil broth) and a cool cilantro chutney, the dosa exemplifies the best of Indika—bold, yet not spicy-hot, in other words, simple yet complex flavors.
Another favorite street snack that I haven’t found elsewhere in Roanoke is pani puri—a bite-sized, hollow puri (unleavened bread made from wheat flour) filled with potatoes, chickpeas, dal, cilantro, and spices. Drizzle the tangy tamarind sauce on top and pop it into your mouth in one bite, and you’ve got a snack for the go (or a perfect appetizer while you wait for the main dishes).
Indika’s strengths also lie in its more familiar curries. Palak Paneer, a popular vegetarian dish of stewed spinach and paneer (Indian cheese, cut into squares and fried) with yogurt, is fragrant and savory here. Chole Bhature, a tomato-based curry of chickpeas and spices, is rich and inviting on a cold, windy day. For meat-lovers, the often-predictable chicken tikka masala is completely transformed at Indika. Forget the bright orange-red sauce you’ve seen in every Indian restaurant you’ve visited. This dish reads pure Indian, not British, with it’s mahogany curry of chicken, spices, and not a drop of tomato soup or yogurt to be seen (it’s true—many American or British Indian restaurants use condensed tomato soup as the base of their chicken tikka masala). It’s a complicated dish with layers of spice that give a vibrant, bitter-rich depth to the curry. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in the United States, and a must-order dish.