Spice Express Indian Bistro

$$$$ ($14 and under)
Spice Express Indian Bistro photo
Susan Biddle/The Post

Editorial Review

Who says a restaurant can't thrive in a recession? In January, Shiv Agarwal opened Spice Express, an Indian bistro and carryout on Vermont Avenue NW specializing in generous and affordable curries. The restaurant was such a hit -- Agarwal says many customers come three to five times a week -- that this month he added a second location, just five blocks away.

Agarwal seems to have a knack for giving people what they want. He started in the business with two cafes on the campus of American University. They were successful, and the college asked him to take over two more. Soon, Agarwal added Indian curries to the menus. Before long, he says, the dishes outsold sandwiches, sushi, dumplings and even coffee. So Agarwal decided to open a casual Indian restaurant downtown.

The deal is simple: Choose any two curries with basmati rice for $6.99. Add a third for $1.50. A larger portion of one curry with nan from the tandoor oven costs between $9.99 and $11.99.

Chicken tikka masala, a creamy tomato curry, is Spice Express's most popular offering. And though it's a respectable version of what many call Britain's national dish, the vegetarian curries outshine it. The vegetables are fresh and thankfully not overcooked, as they are at so many all-you-can-eat buffets. Always available are saag paneer, a spinach puree studded with Indian cheese; dal makhani, a creamy lentil curry; and our favorite, the chana masala, a bright blend of chickpeas, ginger, tomato and what tasted like a hint of cardamom.

Other options change daily. A cabbage and potato mix had serious kick. The only disappointment was the bhindi masala. Okra is tricky to get right, and in this dish it was greasy.

Made-to-order wraps could unseat your favorite neighborhood sandwiches. The chef mixes paneer cheese, vegetables or chicken with onions, peppers and a generous drizzle of coriander sauce inside a whole-wheat roti ($5.99). Add a side of cucumber raita ($1.99) and use the leftovers as a sauce for grilled chicken or fish later that week. Or choose a refreshing mango lassi, a blend of fruit, yogurt and sugar; it's a bargain at $2.99.

Like many places, Spice Express has gone green. All containers are biodegradable or recyclable.

"The economy is bad, but the amount of success we are seeing is phenomenal," Agarwal said, which explains why he is already keeping an eye out for new spaces.

-- Jane Black (Good to Go, May 20, 2009)