Lunchtime is quiet at Kattapas Kitchen, a new Indian restaurant next door to Broomfield's Pacific Ocean Marketplace. Quiet enough for me to hear a couple seated behind me marvel at their beautiful thali platters bejeweled with multi-colored sauces and stews. And quiet enough for me to hear the host field a phoned-in complaint about the restaurant's butter chicken.
A restaurant should be able to put the same level of quality and consistency into every dish on its menu, but that's not always the case, especially at small, independently owned eateries that try to cater to every taste. Americans have come to expect certain things from Indian restaurants — butter chicken is near the top of the list — and restaurant owners can't be blamed for trying to meet those expectations.
But a little advance knowledge could help you navigate a menu of unfamiliar dishes so that you don't simply settle on something whose name you recognize, especially if it's not a specialty of the house. In the case of Kattapas Kitchen, knowing that the owners hail from Hyderabad and that the kitchen turns out primarily south Indian cuisine could help you choose the right dish for a satisfying meal. Butter chicken, after all, was created in Delhi, nearly a thousand miles north of Hyderabad, where the culture, climate and ingredients are far different. Even if the butter chicken is well made, it's likely to taste different from what your neighborhood Indian eatery puts out. If you're at a Cajun restaurant in Denver, you'd probably steer clear of a lobster roll on the menu and opt instead for the jambalaya or gumbo, especially if you knew that the cook was a New Orleans native. While the lobster roll could be great, it could also end up with the wrong kind of bun or seasonings, or extra ingredients that would only anger New England purists.
At Kattapas, a wise choice would be to follow the lead of the couple enjoying their thali, a lunchtime special that delivers a silver platter loaded with rice and your choice of vegetarian or meat-based bites. It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet that lands on your table: You may not recognize everything, but it will all be good, from the crunchy pakoda to the buttery naan and the stewed lentils.
Hyderabad is famed for its dum biryani, a one-pot rice dish layered with chicken, goat or vegetables and cooked over low heat. Kattapas has several versions to choose from, all in generous portions ranging in price from $11 to $15, and all worth your attention.
The list of curries is a little trickier to navigate. Along with butter chicken, there's mutton rogan josh, chicken tikka masala and kadai murg (chicken), which are served in many all-purpose Indian restaurants but aren't specifically south Indian. Instead, to taste something outside the typical north Indian standards, try the house goat curry or the natu kodi curry, a spicy chicken dish from Andhra Pradesh.
The restaurant's slate of appetizers and dosas offers more room for exploration. But even in south India, the culture and cuisine aren't monolithic. Hyderabad is still a long way from the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, for example, and dishes and ingredients change from region to region. On a recent visit, I made a meal out of appetizers, tasting a range of flavors from all around India. Savory doughnuts called vada, made from lentil flour, are served with fiery sambhar, which comes in somewhere between a soup and a sauce (go ahead and dunk). These were lighter and fluffier than the vada at Tiffin's in Boulder (one of the few other Indian restaurants in the metro area that serves them), but the sambhar was thinner.
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Mirchi bajji are incendiary green chiles dipped in chickpea batter and deep-fried; here they're served cut into thick rings and served with cooling mint chutney. Chicken 65, with its Ferrari-red sauce, is a Hyderabad staple. I ordered the Veg 65, which comes with pieces of meat substitute (seitan, I think) in the same sauce, bold with garlic, ginger, turmeric and chiles.
Short of embarking on a multi-week tour of India and its many regions, it's difficult to envision the country's vastness, both geographically and culturally. Just as in the U.S., some dishes are available just about everywhere but change subtly from city to city, while other specialties are unique to a town or area. Rather than expecting butter chicken to taste the same in every restaurant, it's more rewarding to enjoy the variations — or skip the familiar altogether and trust Kattapas to guide you through its best dishes over the course of several visits.
Kattapas Kitchen took over the space at 6590 West 120th Avenue that had been occupied by Mini India; it opened the first week of May. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday (closing from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.), and from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Call 303-469-4148 or visit kattapaskitchen.com for more details.