Despite the culinary leaps and bounds Fort Worth has made over the past several years, certain types of restaurants remain in short supply here, Indian restaurants being one of them.
A charming new spot on the city’s east side called Namaste helps fill this niche nicely. Owners Umesh Bhujel and Neeru Bhandari offer authentic Indian fare, minus the trappings that sometimes go along with the turf. No one will ask you to rate your preferred level of spiciness on a scale of 1 to 5, and there’s not a buffet in sight.
Opened six months ago, the restaurant takes over what used to be a Sonic, and the building’s original bones remain, down to the diagonal parking spaces where car-hops once delivered burgers and fries.
The inside has been converted into a tiny sit-down restaurant with a half-dozen booths. A swinging, saloon-style door separates the dining room from the kitchen. Whenever it swings open, you can catch a glimpse of your food being prepared, by hand.
That food is of consistently great caliber. What emerged from the kitchen over the course of our two visits were dishes of quality and balance that encompassed the diversity of Indian cuisine. Plus, each was bountiful, beautifully presented and dirt-cheap.
On our first visit, we were confused by how to order. Many of the items weren’t on the menus that were handed to us but on a separate menu displayed on the wall. There seems to be no reason why the menu is split, but know this: If you don’t scan the wall, you’ll miss out on many of the restaurant’s standout dishes.
This would include the goat biryani ($7.99), a mountain of heavily spiced rice with tender pieces of marinated goat meat tucked underneath. We could smell the dish coming before we could see it coming. The rice’s aromatic web of cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, garlic and other spices created an alluring fragrance, not to mention exuberant bites.
Goat can sometimes be too gamey or oily, but here it was neither. Any trace of gaminess was wiped out by the way it absorbed the rice’s unique flavors. And with a silky texture, it gave the rice some needed moisture.
On top of the rice came a baked egg, encased in a light breading. Our server instructed us to crush it with a fork and mix the hard yolk with the rice, a cool little pro-tip that gave the rice an extra bit of richness.
Our server also showed us the ropes of the tremendously fun dish called thali ($8.99). It consisted of several small bowls of food, called katoris, arranged on a round platter, with steamed white rice in the middle. The idea was to mix everything together.
Sample before you mix. Flavors can be strong, and not everything is meant to be eaten at the same time. It’s also a blast sampling each katori and trying to figure out what each bowl contains.
We loved the bhindi masala (a semi-dry curry made with okra), marinated pork and fried potatoes and onions. Eat the slices of raw carrots and cucumbers, we were instructed, near the end of the meal, then finish off with the plain yogurt. “It’ll help with your digestion,” our server said. A server who dispenses medical advice. We liked her.
The menu includes a half-dozen entrees inspired by the cuisine of eastern Himalaya, where the owners are originally from. Among them is chicken sekuwa ($7.99), skewers of grilled chicken marinated in a super-hot ginger-garlic paste. I quickly formed a love/hate relationship with them, reaching for a glass of water with one hand, another bite of chicken with the other.
On the side, a pile of dried soybeans offered salt and crunch, while a small kachumber salad, dotted with bell peppers, onions and cucumbers, was pleasingly fiery. This was the dish that best exemplified the restaurant’s well-thought-out balance of flavors and textures.
With each entrée comes a complimentary cup of lentil soup, whose intense, earthy flavor was so addicting, we asked for refills.
There are also more than a dozen appetizers and small dishes — from momo, gyoza-like dumplings filled with diced chicken or vegetables, to excellent naan bread, made in-house. The bread is put to spectacular use on the aloo paratha ($2.50), in which it is layered with mashed potatoes and onions, then folded over and cut into triangles, like quesadillas.
Dessert options included mango lassi ($2.50), a light and refreshing drink consisting of fresh mango whipped with yogurt, and kheer, a sweet and savory rice pudding cooked with cardamom.
Namaste is an extremely casual, family-run restaurant, and as such, it has a likably unpolished feel. Newcomers to Indian cuisine will be greeted by patient and knowledgeable servers, who may need a nudge to refill your tea but will happily, even excitedly, explain menu particulars.
Fort Worth could use a few more places like this.