Chalk up another cuisine assembled Chipotle-counter style: Indian, by way of Thaaja, the fast-casual food bar that opened in January in NoMa.
The name means “fresh” in Hindi, and the setup is designed to make Subcontinental cuisine accessible. “Indian food in America is really fragmented,” says 30-year-old owner Shailesh Kumar, an investment banker turned restaurateur who lives nearby in Chinatown and developed all of the recipes. “You have really high-end restaurants, or you’ve got really small mom-and-pop places. But there’s nothing in between.”
To order Thaaja’s salads, wraps and bowls, start by selecting a base: romaine lettuce; a white or whole-wheat tortilla; rice with cumin and cilantro; or flatbread that is made in-house daily and spiced with garam masala and turmeric.
The meal is priced according to the protein, which comes next: chicken ($6.95), steak ($7.90) and lamb ($8.55; the most popular), all spiced with cumin, coriander, garam masala, curry powder and other seasonings; tofu ($7.45); and paneer dusted with paprika ($7.45). The well-spiced poultry and generous dominos of cheese were my favorites; the boneless pieces of New Zealand lamb shoulder had an earthiness that proved distracting.
Opt for add-ons such as roasted chickpeas, corn (also paprika-dusted), onion, chopped tomatoes and shredded lettuce before moving on to the final sauce station. The best of the six sauce choices might be the cool-then-zingy Triple C (cilantro, coriander, cucumber) and the creamy coconut. Vindaloo, called Vin D’Lou here, was a one-note bust. None of them are particularly hot, but that was Kumar’s goal. “I didn’t want the food to be too spicy,” he says, “so it would be more user-friendly.” An order takes two or three minutes to complete.
There’s little in the way of sides, except for chips and the Thaaja roll ($2.75), which is modeled on a samosa. The small, sad-looking rectangle of baked pastry filled with spiced peas and potatoes wouldn’t be out of place in the hot case at the 7-Eleven next door; it does a disservice to Indian cuisine by being on sale here.
A far more successful riff on a traditional favorite is the slightly sweet, slightly tangy mango lassi shake (16 ounces, $2.75), which is satisfyingly thick. Beyond fountain sodas and bottled beverages, there is a small selection of beer, wine and spirits ($5 to $6). When warmer months arrive, the eatery will set up outdoor seating so you can down your drink of choice alfresco.
— Nevin Martell
Thaaja Indian Food Bar 1335 Second St. NE. 202-289-4200. www.thaaja.com. Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.