By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 13, 2008
** (out of four)
Sound Check: 74 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)
Open since September in a new strip shopping center off busy Elden Street, Masala Wok quickly has become a hit with office workers at lunch and families in the evenings. The eating area, with its walls painted peach, saffron and lime green, is roomy enough that tables can be pushed together to accommodate large groups without bothering other customers. The carpeted floor helps soften the noise, so there's a nice low-level buzz to the place that feels energetic but welcoming.
The menu has three main parts: masala entrees (milder curries, mostly), favorites (well-known dishes such as chicken tikka and tandoori chicken) and wok entrees (Chinese-inspired dishes with Indian spices). There are also a handful of appetizers, several soups, a couple of wraps and three desserts, including a dreamy tres leches cake.
Let's start with the starters. The samosas, fried, flaky puff pastry triangles filled with potatoes and peas, are always good, but the real star is the chicken lollipops. When I first saw them on the menu, I figured they were some kind of kid treat -- you know, mild, fried drummettes. Then I took a bite. Wow. The best way I can describe them is the Indian version of Buffalo chicken wings. Each spicy, batter-dipped drummette is about three bites worth of fiery, addictive pleasure.
Speaking of fiery, entrees can be ordered mild, medium or spicy. (My Indian friends go for spicy; medium is my limit.) The menu also clearly indicates which dishes can be made vegetarian (either with vegetables only or with paneer, a mild, fresh cheese), and which are available low-carb with stir-fried vegetables on the side instead of rice or nan. Most entrees can be prepared with your choice of chicken, lamb or shrimp.
Chicken tikka masala is a consistent favorite, with its tender marinated cubes of grilled chicken in a rich, creamy tomato sauce the color of ripe persimmons. It's available as an entree with rice, or as a wrap with chicken, rice, cheese and vegetables rolled up in nan, plus dipping sauce on the side. Like korma -- a yogurt-based, slightly sweet curry -- these two dishes will appeal to those who want something mild. For more heat, go for the Blazing Masala Noodles, stir-fried linguine with finely chopped vegetables in a chili-infused red sauce. It's great topped with plump shrimp. The vindaloo, a normally spicy tomato stew, seemed a bit toned down and not quite thick enough, but there's always the Masala Wok Spicy, which is an Indian-style Sichuan stir-fry (hint: Eat a spoonful of yogurt raita to douse those smoldering tongues).
For kids, there are soft noodles and the ubiquitous chicken nuggets, or try the masala quesadilla -- warm, puffy nan stuffed with melted cheese. My 17-year-old "kid" had to slap my hand to keep me from eating all of hers.
If you want to eat something quick in this neck of the woods, options come courtesy of fast-food chains. Since September, however, more people have found their way to this bright Indochinese diner, where healthful choices are plentiful and the masala (freshly ground spices) is incorporated to your liking.
Turns out it's a chain as well -- based in Texas, with a handful of locations around Austin, Dallas and Houston. Franchise owner Vivek Bhakta is the first to open a Masala Wok in the Washington area.
Masala Wok's menu is almost overwhelming, so the subdivisions of masala entrees, favorites and wok entrees are helpful, as are the patient employees at the counter. Accompaniments include basmati or brown rice, noodles and freshly made nan, but sometimes a side of crunchy stir-fried vegetables or chewy, whole-wheat roti can be substituted. Vegetarian or low-carb items are clearly marked. Dishes can be made spicy or mild; entree prices vary, according to the add-ins you choose.
We couldn't resist starting with the crisp vegetarian spring rolls and their spicy chili sauce ($5). Blazing Masala Noodles are stir-fried in a tomato-y sauce and can be dressed with vegetables, chicken, the fresh Indian cheese paneer or shrimp ($7.50 to $9). The portion is generous enough to share and delivers a lot of flavor, with carrots, egg and crisp scallions.
Bhakta says the chicken tikka masala ($8.50) is his most popular dish, with its marinated cubes grilled in a tandoor oven and then cooked in a tomato sauce. The tandoori plate ($8) has plenty of telltale tandoori-red meat and is served with vegetables and a nicely spiced curry sauce for dipping.
We especially liked the dal fry ($7.50), a generous helping of tender lentils cooked with tomato, onions and cilantro -- and soupy enough that we wished it had been packed to go in a tall cylindrical container instead of a compartmented carton.
Curries, kebabs, wraps and American chop suey fill out Masala Wok's savory ethnic mission. When it comes to desserts (all $3), we were surprised to find a creamy and moist tres leches cake on the menu. But it's selling like hot cakes, Bhakta says. An Indian option close in taste is the ras malai, which is made with a soft, fresh Indian cheese, served in sweetened milk and strewn with pistachios.
-- Bonnie S. Benwick (March 5, 2008)