In the middle of Inman Square an orange billboard welcomes passers-by to enter Punjabi Dhaba, Boston’s very own Indian roadside café. People sit on one of four small tables on the first floor and sip hot chai to keep warm while they wait for their take-out – the night is cold and the heating seems nonexistent — and yet the enticing aroma of fresh Punjabi food coming from the kitchen keeps everyone satisfied and patient.
Punjabi Dhaba echoes the simple, unadorned atmosphere of traditional dhabas that accompany petrol stations along Indian and Pakistani highways. The seating area is functional and clean but unapologetically basic. A self-service refrigerator filled with a variety of lassis stands along one wall of the unusual space and an old television plays upbeat Punjabi music videos. As guests approach the register to order their meal and retrieve their own silverware, the man behind the counter points to the “ONLY CASH” sign on the door and directs those without cash to the ATM across the street.
With so many options, it can be difficult to choose. Punjabi Dhaba’s menu board features halka khana [lighter meals], chaat [savory snacks], rice dishes, breads and a plethora of classic vegetarian and meat dishes. The large range of choices and mostly comedic description of a dozen spice level preferences ensure that there is something for everyone.
The “Dhaba Specials” provide the best opportunity to experience the most food in just one generously portioned dish for only $9 to $12. Each of them comes with naan, basmati rice, raita (yogurt condiment) and raw and pickled onions. After a short wait, the “Malai Kofta Lajawaab” arrives in a compartmentalized steel tray, perfectly separating the different components of the dish. Three large fried kofta balls made of paneer (cheese), potato and grated vegetables are the stars of the dish. They are drowned in a creamy onion, tomato and cashew gravy and garnished with freshly chopped coriander. The dense kofta soak up the sweet and tangy gravy to offer a rich, filling bite. It is not just savory flavors that Punjabi Dhaba has mastered. Even the mango lassi is an impeccable balance of sweet mango pulp and tart yogurt.
The accompaniments are just as tempting. In true dhaba style, the fresh naan is served whole, unlike the dainty triangular pieces served in baskets at most other Indian restaurants. It begs to be dipped into the kofta gravy and eaten while hot from the tandoor (grill). The basmati rice is mixed with ghee (clarified butter). It is addictively delicious and can pleasurably be eaten on its own or mixed with kofta gravy. The onions provide moments of added spice while the raita serves to cool down the palate after particularly fiery bites. The subtle tang of the yogurt in the flawless raita demonstrates how Punjabi Dhaba succeeds in perfecting a simple cuisine that other restaurants unnecessarily complicate.
When Dewick’s renditions of vegetable pakora and chicken curry fail to impress, Punjabi food enthusiasts need another way to satisfy their cravings. Punjabi Dhaba offers a perfect solution with affordable, fresh, delicious food. Sure, the modest appearance, much like the traditional dhabas that inspired its creation, may not make Punjabi Dhaba the best place to impress a first date. If the number one priority is eating effortlessly divine Punjabi cuisine, however, Punjabi Dhaba is the place to go.
Punjabi Dhaba is located at 225 Hampshire Street, Cambridge, Mass. 02139. They can be reached by phone at (617) 547-8272 or online at www.punjabidhaba.com. It is open every day from 12 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.