Is there anything that screams monotonous, tedious homogeneity louder than the typical food court at any mall in cosmopolitan America? “But,” you might argue, “the food court is a paragon of diversity where you can get your fill of pizza, sushi, burgers, cinnamon rolls, sweet and sour mystery meat and a veritable United Nations line-up of ethnic foods all in one place.” While that might be true, my argument is that the same boring sameness you find in Albuquerque’s mall food courts can be found at any food court in any mall. Only airports have a similarly comparable array of uninspiring food-court-type selections.
Despite the “culinary diversity” in food courts, there is an almost general scarcity of local culinary representation. At least that’s the case in the contiguous area shared by multiple food vendors; small private vendors are usually relegated to outlying areas of the mall. Food courts are, by and large, the haven of fast food chains which can afford the steep rent commanded in the premium heavily-trafficked area. Typical food court tenants may include McDonalds or Burger King, Edo Japan, Sbarro, China Wok, Cinnabon and others of that ilk.
An argument could be made that food courts make the “exotic” affordable–and approachable. Diners who might not, for example, venture into a Japanese sushi restaurant might find themselves emboldened to try the mall food court sushi where they don’t have to know what and how to order or how to eat their unfamiliar fare. Mall food court restaurants, boring as they may be, have their place and it’s not necessarily within the confines of a mall.
While some vendors (such as Sbarro) operate almost exclusively in food courts, other mall food court denizens have spread their tentacles across suburbia. One, the Panda Express, is the fastest growing gourmet Chinese food concept in the United States. Its fast casual environment and alluring silver serving trays are popular, in large part, because they give diners options–such as dine-in or carry-out, a la carte or combo–at reasonable prices and in the large portions to which Americans seem to gravitate.
For twelve years, K.C. Wang oversaw a regional Panda Express operation, watching the burgeoning franchise win over the hearts and appetites of Americans. He reasoned that the successful modus operandi would work well with East Indian food, too. Rather than relegate the concept to a mall food court, he and his business partners launched a restaurant storefront called Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express on Holly Plaza just north of Paseo del Norte.
After his inaugural visit, my frequent dining companion Bill Resnik excitedly told me about the “East Indian version of Panda Express.” Possessing one of the most pedantic palates of anyone I know, Bill’s assessment of Saffron Tiger was, “about average for an Indian restaurant, but excellent for a food court type operation.” While not necessarily a rousing endorsement, he did praise the garlic naan, chili chicken and saag paneer, three of my favorite Indian dishes.
Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express has the polish and panache of a brand new restaurant in a brand new shopping center. Launched in October, 2009, it is a bright and attractive venue with gleaming silver holding trays showcasing more than twenty steaming East Indian dishes, including a wide variety of vegetarian items. An open kitchen environment backdrops the counter and above the industrial cooking apparatus is a brightly colored menu listing and describing the fare.
The menu is pretty basic. You can opt for a two entree combo—any two entrees and one side or a three entrée combo—any three entrees and one side, both well under ten dollars. You can also order from the a la carte menu: any entrée or any side in single or large sizes. A “family feast” comprised of three large entrees and two large sides is available for under thirty dollars. Sides, by the way, can be ordered in half orders such as a half order of garlic naan and rice. In sheer volume, a three-entrée combo approximates the equivalent of an Indian buffet.
Your order is apportioned into paper plates, each compartment filled to brimming. One compartment is reserved for sides: naan or garlic naan, steamed rice or Tiger Rice (made with cumin seed, bay leaf and peas) or crispy cabbage. Your best bet is to order two half sides and even then, the half portions are prodigious. Chutneys are complementary and mango lassi is available to quench your thirst.
My friend Bill’s assessment of Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express was pretty much spot on. There is better Indian food to be had in Albuquerque, but for a semi fast-food operation, Saffron Tiger is a force to be reckoned with. Some items are very good and everything we had was fresh, hot and seasoned well. Reasonable portions, good value for the money, delicious food–for what more can you ask?
The stand-outs include the garlic naan which is served warm and fresh with a nice amount of char and pungency from the garlic. It’s not doughy in the least and in fact, some parts crumble off. The tamarind chutney has a nice balance of sweet and tanginess and makes an excellent dip for the naan. The Indian pickles, though not made in-house, are excellent with the pungency, piquancy and bitterness you come to expect from Indian pickles though that generalization is wholly inaccurate because there are hundreds of ways to make Indian pickles.
Also quite good is the saag paneer, a mildly aromatic curry dish which contains a non-melting, salt-free “farmer’s cheese” called paneer. Saffron Tiger’s rendition is generous with its paneer and spices this entree very well so that creaminess and piquancy are well-balanced. The piquancy is subtle, not intended to incinerate your taste buds, but to tantalize them. The piquancy of the chili chicken, on the other hand, is intended to grab your attention. This is a very interesting dish which Bill indicated was prepared differently than the first time he had it. What we were served was reminiscent of a Chinese sesame chicken entree with chilis. It was good, but more Chinese than Indian.
Other items weren’t executed quite as well. The chicken tikki masala (chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and then served in a rich orange, creamy, lightly spiced, tomato-based sauce), was made with the bane of any chicken-based entree, desiccated dark meat. This was truly tragic because the sauce was quite good.
Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express is far from a boring, homogenous copycat mall food court quality operation. It has no pretensions about being a gourmet East Indian restaurant treating its cuisine with a reverential respect. It’s cafeteria-style Indian food done surprisingly well. Its time has come.
The time for expansion occurred about a year and a half after the opening of the Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express. The second instantiation is called Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine, sans the Express part of the name. It’s situated on Corrales Boulevard at the former site of India Palace. Just as the “Express” portion of the elder sibling’s name fits to a tee, so does the shortened name fit the newer restaurant which is primarily a menu-driven operation (though a lunch buffet is available).
The Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine restaurant bears little resemblance to its predecessor or to its elder sibling. It has the look and feel of a fine dining establishment with the flexibility of a lunch buffet. The cynosure is a decorous bar with an expansive wine menu as well as domestic, imported and Indian beers. The lunch buffet is obfuscated by a divider.
Whether you visit the Express restaurant on Paseo del Norte or its more upscale and classy sister on Corrales Boulevard, you’ll be in for a very pleasant dining experience highlighted by food you will enjoy.
Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine Express
6550 Paseo Del Norte, N.E., Suite D1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 May 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Garlic Naan, Chili Chicken, Saag Paneer, Raja Shrimp
Saffron Tiger Indian Cuisine
10701 Corrales Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 1