It's impossible to distill the vast wealth of Indian food into a single restaurant.
A day fit for incandescent biryanis, another devoted to curries, or one when only a soul-affirming paneer tikka does the job. All these nuances — whether regional (North vs. South, and beyond) or with specific dishes — are cases when the parts are greater than the sum.
Many great places throughout the Twin Cities area deliver on these dishes, so I took my time. Where possible, I tried more common staples as a control, then ventured to rarer items on the menu, most of which are guided by recommendations from friends, trusted confidants, and my compass of having grown up in a culture (Singapore) that thrived on South Asian cuisine.
Yet there is one that trumps it all. Here are my top picks for the best Indian restaurants.
The top three
1. India Spice House
The adjacent grocery store tells diners all they need to know about the restaurant; it may be small but it's packed with all the colorful spices and grains you need to cater a lavish banquet. At India Spice House, the restaurant, a narrow space belies their strong repertoire of not just South Indian fare — the restaurant's focus — but of other regions, too.
By day, the restaurant serves a limited but remarkable buffet ($27.49) of staples, split between meat and vegetarian options, with descriptions scrawled on glass. Standouts are the samosa chaats (North Indian), buried with fluffy rice in a flat wok as large as a satellite dish; the rich Palak chicken, which gets its pesto hue from spinach; the Raju Gari chicken pulao, bright with green chiles and mint; the Gongura mutton curry, vibrating with bitterness from the leaf. Where others take shortcuts, Indian Spice House does not — everything tastes like it was made with care, eschewing jars and easy spice packets.
By night, the selection is more expansive, and while there are staples like vindaloo or tandoori, consider partaking in the easygoing pleasures of Chicken 65 ($14.99), lipstick red from the Kashmiri chile powder, spicy tadka and ketchup, which stays crispy despite being cloaked in a sweet-spicy sauce that's not unlike buffalo popcorn chicken. The spice (comfortably) lingers, and the meat is juicy from a marinade that likely took the full day. It's the best of its kind in the Twin Cities.
Also compelling is the Methi curry ($13.99), a pale but complex and nutty curry studded with enough fenugreek to flare your nostrils. It's warming but not spicy, and you'll want spoonfuls of it to pair with naan or rice. Alongside it, I recommend the kadai paneer ($13.99) — cubes of spongy cheese simmered with onion and green chiles in a mildly spiced curry sauce.
None of the dishes are served in the silver trays or tiffin-like dishware seen in other local restaurants. The decor can be drab and businesslike — India Spice House opened 15 years ago in an Eden Prairie strip mall in a neighborhood popular among South Asians, and probably hasn't changed much — but the flavors shout. You won't know of its popularity if you take dinners early; closer to 8:30 p.m., as I witnessed across my three visits, the restaurant reaches full capacity. Best not to wait.
8445 Joiner Way, Eden Prairie, 952-942-8010, indiaspicehouseep.com
2. Indian Masala
The red walls, fluorescently lighted chandelier and gratis bottled water show the kind of endearing welcome that South Asian diners seek as a unique marker of authenticity. Indian Masala, in Maplewood, gets these details right.
Though the restaurant offers dishes from each region, the strongest lean North Indian, and your best bets are the rich, creamy curries endemic to the region. As expected, the paneer tikka ($12.99) is a marvel — rich yet weightless sauce the color of Fanta clinging to each cube of paneer. And the naans ($2.50 to $5.49) are among the best prepared I've tried among all the restaurants — swelling in the right places, shiny from all the ghee. I think about them both. But I will return, too, for the more South Indian (brothier, more coconut-y) chana masala ($10.99) for the way the deeply flavored broth penetrates the chickpeas; and the Mughlai chicken ($13.99), a cashew-forward chicken curry that looks like a riot of oil and herbs, sweetened with raisins.
27 N. Century Av., Maplewood, 651-501-7824, indianmasalamn.com
3. Dosa South Indian Grill
The standard move at Dosa, in Bloomington, is to order the namesake dish — the outstretched, ceremonious looking thin pancake made from lentils and rice and folded like a billowed apron. The dosa here, while smaller than others around the Twin Cities, is indeed the most gratifying: Somehow, it's crispier, more malted and more fermented; and the filling (Masala Dosa, $12, as a control), curried potato, has char and flavor that comes from patience — and probably all those whole bay leaves tucked within.
But then you'd miss out on biryanis, the seasoned rice dish cooked slowly with plenty of spices. The one at Dosa is characterized more by whole cloves and cardamom, and the meats (the standard chicken, $15, or an even better lamb, $19) weep juices that turn the rice moist while remaining loose and fluffy. I think about it still.
Other notable dishes include a Hyderabadi-style eggplant stir-fry ($12), cooked until the spongy vegetable surrenders into a mild curry flecked with onions, sesame and peanuts. Few do it better.
8654 Lyndale Av. S., Bloomington, 952-884-1033, dosabloomington.com
The best of the rest
Biryanis are clearly the house specialty, and the style in which they are made follows the custom borne by the city in Southern India, in a state called Telangana. At this Plymouth eatery, there are 28 biryanis to choose from, and they encompass rarer variations like Gongura shrimp ($19) and Ulavacharu paneer ($17). They're all a triumph, though not all deliver the same pleasures. The true standouts are the curries, but they may not be for novices. Not just because "mild" heat passes for a searing medium, but also because of how spice-forward they all are. They are not subtle. The Andhra ($16) probably has enough cardamom to induce hallucinations, and the Kadai goat curry ($18) is marinated long enough to tame the gaminess of the meat to the point where it achieves the texture of a long-labored short-rib braise. Even the chana masala ($15) is made in the rarer North Indian style — richer, swapping tomatoes for coconut — and it's just viscous enough that it doesn't pry the chickpeas from their snappy texture.
3195 Vicksburg Lane N., Plymouth, 651-412-6660, hhplymouth.com
Aroma Indian Cuisine
Many of the staples across the vast menu at Aroma in Bloomington are good enough to sate any cravings. Yes, the paneer tikka is properly spongy, like halloumi; the masala dosa is more than serviceable; and the biryani is a comfort. But you'll need to eat your way around to find the gems. And there are several: The parottas ($4.49 each) are noteworthy, with their laminated layers of flaky dough — like scallion pancakes — slippery with ghee; the sorrel tang from Gongora chicken ($13.99) is polarizing but distinct; and the earthiness of the Malabar fish curry ($14.99), cooked with a "secret sauce," made my eyes go wide with pleasure. I don't know exactly is in it, but I know it left me rabid for more.
517 W. 98th St., Bloomington, 952-479-7154, thearomaindiancuisine.com