Spices and Sweets at Renton's Pabla Indian Cuisine

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Some seriously spicy, and seriously delicious, veggie dishes from Pabla Indian Cuisine.
When faced with a commute to dinner that takes longer than 20 minutes, I like to pretend I live in Los Angeles, where it takes you twice that long to get anywhere. We're awfully spoiled with Seattle's dense concentration of restaurants and shops, but sometimes a girl's got to get out of the city. And go to Renton.

OK, so Renton may not be a dining destination in and of itself, but once you've tried Pabla Indian Cuisine (this Pabla, not this one, or this one) it really puts that 35-minute drive from Ballard in perspective. The restaurant and adjoining grocery/ sweetshop offer vegetarian and kosher Indian food so flavorful I'll happily get in my car and make the trek south again soon. Live downtown? You're even closer and have no reason not to go.

Like many of the area's best ethnic groceries or restaurants, this eatery is not only out of the way, but a little hard to find due to its inconspicuous strip-mall home. Find it, though--across from a Fred Meyer and surrounded by nail salons and quilting shops and video stores--and you'll see two separate entities conjoined by a shared entrance. On the left: a spacious dining room whose rich decorations like tapestries, lace curtains, wood carvings, and portraits of the Taj Mahal make up for dated details like the wood paneling that lines the walls. On the right: a tightly packed grocery store where shelves are lined with exotic spices and Ravi Shankar CDs, and a long case is filled with brightly colored Indian pastries and sweets.

My dining partner and I, though easily distracted by the dessert options, decide on dinner first--hungry after our dreary, rainy drive from Seattle. Having been to the restaurant once before to try the thalis (a great option if you want to try a little of everything without over-ordering), we opted to order from the a la carte menu instead. Pani puri, one of my favorite Indian street food-style snacks that are difficult to find, arrived first--crunchy, hollow, deep-fried puffs that you eat by punching a hole in the top, then filling with a spoonful of potatoes and garbanzo beans, followed by a slightly sweet, slightly spicy cool water. The whole puff has to be popped into your mouth at once, lest the water soak through the thin crust and the whole thing go soggy. It's a lesson in perfect flavor/texture balance: salty and sweet, spicy and cool, crunchy and soft and liquid.

The dishes that follow are great as well--a minced paneer dish with a spicy, cream-based sauce called kofta dilbahar, and a tangy tomato curry with potatoes and onions they called Punjabi vindaloo, both complemented by fluffy basmati rice and perfectly charred, chewy naan--but the pani puri is worth the trip alone.

Stuffed and sweating (in a good way) from the spice, we waddle over to the bakery counter, hoping to pick up some sweets to go. The names are foreign to me--barfi ladoo, petha tikki--and the colors look to be unnaturally bright shades of yellow and pink, but we pick up a few of the bars and balls, like little doughnut holes, to have at home. Next to this impressive selection of sweets and spiced nuts is a freezer selection with containers of the curries sold at the restaurant--a great idea!--and we pick up an aloo gobhi and Pabla special masala, along with a baggie of frozen samosas and a jar of mint chutney, to keep on hand at home. The frozen goods are the highlight of the grocery offerings, unless you're in the market for fenugreek, cardamom, black salt, incense candles, and tiny trinkets.

The desserts we found later to be too cloyingly sweet and generally a disappointment, though they may very well be accurate representations of traditional dishes. I'm just excited that next time I want to taste the spicy, curried flavors of Pabla, I only have to go as far as my freezer, and not as far as Renton.

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