But like Dorothy when she steps from the bleak black-and-white landscape of Kansas to the wild Technicolor wonders of Oz, you enter a new world when you take a seat inside Akshaya’s spacious dining room, where the Bollywood videos play on an endless loop. Once tucked into the restaurant’s curry-scented embrace, the hard, commercial terrain outside practically recedes from memory, if not reality.
Akshaya calls itself an Indo-Chinese restaurant, which is a nod to this collision of Indian and Chinese flavors and techniques usually credited to the Hakka immigrants who settled in the city formerly known as Calcutta. The cuisine, widely available in India, has slowly ingratiated itself to American diners — to the point where there is now a small Indo-Chinese chain, Masala Wok, with two locations in Northern Virginia.
The restaurant takes its name from a ceremonial date on the Hindu calendar, Akshaya Tritiya, which affirms the great bounty of life. One of the legends surrounding the day involves the “akshaya patra,” a holy vessel that provided never-ending sustenance to the Pandava princes in the Mahabharata epic. It’s a lovely metaphor for a place that hopes to feed its Sterling neighbors over and over again.
There is no metaphysical magic behind the bounty at Akshaya. Owner Mrudula Chilukuri and her husband/general manager, Murali Bodala, have hired a pair of chefs to execute a lengthy menu, which features an entire Indo-Chinese section while sprinkling Chinese-influenced dishes among the more standard-issue Indian ones. Chefs Karthik Rangaswamy and Gopi Kuppuswamy even crank out a daily lunch buffet, which offers some of the best South Indian vegetarian dishes this side of Woodlands in Langley Park.
That said, the vegetarian Hakka noodles look utterly unappetizing, an untidy plate of thin pasta strands laced with sliced bell peppers, onions, cabbage and carrots. It’s the kind of plate that, on first glance, might cause a hardcore vegetarian to get his peppers in a twist over the kitchen’s apparent contempt for his meatless diet. Then you dig in and discover the fresh, surprising crunch of the wok-tossed veggies; the creeping, lip-tingling heat; even the deep, savory flavors imparted by the seasoned wok itself.
The lamb pepper fry expresses its Chinese character in more subtle ways. Its chunks of lamb — cooked to balance succulence with chew — have been stir-fried with black pepper and dried chili peppers, then served with an onion-tomato masala. The dish is not as dry as a traditional stir-fry and not as saucy as a traditional gravy-based curry. It’s something all its own, and its dual-action heat can make you drop your fork and admire its contours as the fire dances in and around the other prickly aromatics.
Deep frying is a skill that intersects both Indian and Chinese cuisines, despite the fact that those greasy little logs known as Chinese take-out egg rolls have almost criminalized the cooking method. The chefs at Akshaya are fry masters. Their shrimp pakoras and fresh-cheese fritters are battered, fried to a crunchy edge and dusted with a chaat masala, which adds pungent and eggy notes, thanks in part to the sulfurous black salt. Dip the bites into one of the tabletop chutneys and you have finger food of surprising complexity. I far prefer those two appetizers to the Indo-Chinese chicken “lollipops,” a fluorescent-red meat stick fashioned by sliding the flesh down the length of a wing drumette, then frying and slathering it in a gloppy sweet-chili sauce. They’re like sweet-and-sour Buffalo wings.
Indian cooking, with its little copper pots of curry and oval baskets of naan, is not typically associated with the artful plating techniques of contemporary chefs. But I have to admit that no Michel Richard trompe l’oeil effect could take my breath away as fast as Akshaya’s “paper masala” dosa, a huge rice-and-lentil crepe folded in half and stuffed with a gently spiced potato mixture. The pancake, ladled on a hot tawa or griddle in concentric circles, looks as if someone had shaved a thin, almost translucent round from the trunk of a California redwood and served it with a trio of pungent/cooling dipping options; you can almost count the rings as you’re shoveling down handfuls of this sweet, fermented crepe.
One thing to keep in mind at Akshaya: If you order a dish spicy, you’ll be shown little mercy, no matter how out of place you might appear within these four walls. Cases in point: My Hyderabadi chicken biryani, embedded with perfumed pieces of dark bone-in chicken, caused me to wipe my nose as much as my mouth. Even a dish or two on the buffet can leave burn marks, like the vegetarian biryani, which conceals tiny land mines of heat buried in its fragrant grains of rice.
And just as important: You’ll have to temper all that spice with water or, perhaps, a mango lassi. For now, Akshaya’s never-ending bounty stops at the bar. The restaurant is still waiting on its full liquor license.