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Heavy on the heat: Tandoor ovens create succulent grilled meats

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on May 14, 2010 at 3:29 am | No Comments »
May 13, 2010 5:41 pm
Chicken coated with yogurt and spices is inserted on a skewer into a Tandoori clay oven. Sumay is an Indian Restaurant on Puyallup's South Hill owned by Ramesh Kumar. Photo by Peter Haley/Staff photographer

Don’t think of tandoori as only that brightly colored red chicken on a typical Indian buffet. Tandoori is not just a dish – it’s a cooking method. Delve deeper into the cooking style to find a world of grilled meats beyond chicken tandoori. Lamb, fish and shellfish are all popular dishes at local Indian restaurants.
Tandoors, the clay ovens that create tandoori, cook meat and bread at very high heat in a short amount of time. Internal oven temperatures can reach as high as 800 degrees. At home, a traditional tandoor might be powered by hot coals, but in South Sound restaurants, the tandoor is fueled by gas. Gas heats the clay walls of the oven and lava rocks in the bottom radiate intense heat that quickly cooks meat and bread, such as naan.

“It’s a radiating heat. It can scorch your food. You have to be careful,” said C.J. Singh, owner of Gateway to India on Sixth Avenue and the recently opened Gateway to India in Gig Harbor.

“What we do is we put the food on the skewers, so it stays vertical,” Singh said. A common misstep for tandoor chefs, he said, is leaving meat in a tandoor just a few minutes too long, which can turn it dry.

Ever had an order of tandoori that was just too dry? It’s a common problem, say Indian chefs. One chef says it might be because that’s how Indians like their meat.

“The Indians like dry-roasted meat, but Americans like juicy meat. Indians overcook (meat or) seafood and it tastes like leather,” said Amarjit Randhawa, owner of India Mahal in University Place. Randhawa said Indian-born chefs who cook in the U.S. adapt the cooking method for an American palate. “I’ve worked many years with Americans to learn how they like their meat,” said Randhawa.

Marinades help tenderize the meat and to give that signature flavor of spices. The recipe for tandoor-cooked meats is essentially the same: A yogurt marinade punctuated with garlic and ginger, with chefs adding their own spice blends, called masalas, to flavor the meat.

“There is a huge variety in how you can (spice) tandoori,” said Anita Walia, co-owner with husband Kamal of Tacoma’s Bombay Bistro. “Chefs will have a different input (for each dish). That’s the uniqueness of Indian cuisine, there are no hard and fast recipes. It depends on how he feels that day, what he’s in the mood for. It’s like brush painting. No two paintings will ever be alike. You have to give the chefs freedom to use their creativity.”

Ramesh Kumar, who owns Sumay Fine Indian Cuisine in Puyallup, calls tandoori one of the most healthful items on any Indian restaurant menu. Indian food is nutritious and rich with vegetables, but fats and cream can burden curries served with carb-heavy sides of basmati rice and naan. Grilled meats, he said, are the healthiest. “There’s no skin on it, and the meat is usually lean. There’s no flour involved, no breading or frying. It’s very healthy eating,” Kumar said.

Here is a look at four Indian restaurants in South Sound and the tandoori served at each:

Bombay Bistro
Where: 4328 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
Info: 253-761-9999 or

The restaurant: Bombay Bistro has the most varied selection of tandoori sampled for this report, with unusual offerings, such as lobster, mahi mahi and three kinds of ground meat kebabs. For execution, it also gets my top pick. Most of the meats arrived juicy and succulent, and deeply flavored with extra attention on presentation. The restaurant offers a more upscale bistro experience. Complimentary pappadam and accommodating, attentive service are hallmarks of a dining experience at Bombay Bistro.

The selection: Lazeez bharwan tangri (chicken drumsticks, $12.95), sartaj-e-tandoor (chicken, $12.95), mahi tikka ($19.95), amritsari machhali (battered fish chunks, $19.95), Kashmiri murgh tikka (boneless chicken, $15.95), kastoor kebab (spicy boneless chicken, $15.95),  Sekh pe ghost (ground spiced chicken, $15.95 or ground, spiced beef or lamb, $16.95), mixed tandoori ($21.95), shakahari kebab (vegetables, $12.95), hara bhara kebab (broiled squash and spinach patties, $13.95).

My tandoori picks: The mahi mahi tandoori was not only an unusual menu find, it also was my favorite of every tandoori sampled for this report. Succulent chunks of firm, white fish were puckery with lemon and surprisingly flavored with ajwain, a cousin of caraway. The seek pe ghost ground lamb was my second favorite tandoori. Chunky ground lamb was threaded with whole fennel seeds and heavily spiced. More than a dozen spices, Walia told me by phone, create a complex and memorable ground lamb kebab. The mixed grill was a safe choice and provided something for everyone, but lamb and chicken were both overcooked and dry.

Chef’s tip: “I recommend the mixed grill so people can sample different meats on one plate. That way, if a family shares a dish, they can pick their favorite meats, everyone has a choice,” said owner Anita Walia.

India Mahal
Where:1905 Bridgeport Way, University Place
Phone: 253-564-2039
Other location not reviewed for this report: 823 Pacific Ave., 253-272-5700

The restaurant: Northern Indian favorites served in a casual environment. Service is friendly and accommodating.

The selection: Tandoori murg (chicken on the bone, $11.95), murg ke tikke (boneless chicken, $13.95), barra kabab (boneless lamb, $14.95), tandoori mixed grill (lamb, chicken and fish, $16.95), tandoori fish (halibut or another fresh fish, $14.95).

My tandoori picks: The barra kabab, boneless lamb, was the most succulent of any lamb I sampled at four restaurants. Our server tried to talk us out of the lamb, cautioning it would be too dry for our palates, but we found juicy lamb with a crispy, seared exterior and heavily scented from dried fenugreek, an earthy herb with a pungent scent and strong, herby flavor. Tandoori murg was juicy, and heavily scented with garlic and ginger.

Chef’s tip: “For first-time visitors, most people like the boneless chicken tandoori. It’s very simple and most people like it. It’s very good with an order of naan,” said owner Amarjit Randhawa.

Sumay Fine Indian Cuisine
Where: 12623 Meridian E., Puyallup
Info: 253-770-6276

The restaurant: A small, casual restaurant that will soon be expanding into the space next door with the addition of a lounge. Service is polite, but don’t expect a lot of description of unfamiliar items from your server.

The selection: Tandoori chicken (leg meat, $10.95), lamb boti kabob (boneless lamb, $13.95), chicken tikka (boneless chicken, $12.95), shrimp tandoori ($17.95), sheesh kabob (seasoned, ground lamb, $12.95), mixed grill (lamb, chicken, shrimp, $15.95).

My tandoori picks: The mixed grill at Sumay comes with shrimp, boneless chicken, chicken legs, boneless lamb and ground lamb. The lamb was heavily flavored with cardamom, while the ground lamb kebab, a loose mixture that fell apart easily, tasted of fennel and coriander. Chicken was gingery and garlicky with a heavy dose of fresh lemon juice added at the end of cooking. An order of lamb boti kebab on two visits was far too dry for my palate, but was juicy when served as part of the mixed grill.

An appreciated touch is that instead of the traditional bed of onions, Sumay serves tandoori atop a copious pile of grilled vegetables – meaty chunks of grilled zucchini, carrots, cauliflower and onion. The vegetables make a single dish of tandoori a meal – and a healthy one at that.

Chef’s tip: “We are very well known for our fresh chicken and lamb. We never use frozen lamb, only fresh,” said owner Ramesh Kumar.”

Gateway to India
Tacoma location: 2603 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253-552-5022
Gig Harbor location: 6565 Kimball Drive, 253-851-2688

The restaurant: A young college vibe at the Sixth Avenue Tacoma location, and a more family-oriented feel at the newly opened Gig Harbor restaurant located in a business complex.

The selection: Tandoori murgha (chicken on the bone, $11.95), tandoori murgh tikka (boneless chicken, $14.95), tandoori gosht tikka kebab (boneless lamb, $14.95), tandoori jinga (shrimp, $15.95), mixed tandoori platter ($22.95) (note: prices are for Tacoma store; Gig Harbor prices slightly vary)

My tandoori picks: The tandoori gosht tikka kebab, boneless lamb, was my favorite on two visits to the Tacoma and Gig Harbor locations. The lamb was heavy on the coriander and cumin, and the ginger-garlic flavor permeated every piece. The tandoori murgh tikka boneless chicken wafted with heady spices such as black and green cardamom and cloves, but was a touch too dry.

Chef’s tip: “I can make it spicy, but I have to roll it in the pan with spices. We can make it really hot for you, but tandoori is about the flavor, not the spice,” Singh said.

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