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Heat Wave

The first time I tried Star of India -- two years ago, during one of my warm-weather Indian binges -- I immediately put the meal out of my mind. The food wasn't just spicy, it was punishing. Brutal. The heat was so overwhelming that it fried the synapses in my brain, fusing all connections into a simple danger equation: Star of India=Hot. Too hot. Licking-a-glowing-element hot. Definitely too hot for me to handle. I boxed the memory and buried it, like long-lost radioactive waste.

While I have perfect recall of some things (the seven pastas on my sauté station at a restaurant where I worked ten years ago; all the words to the song "Mexican Radio," by Wall of Voodoo; exactly what I was wearing the night I met Laura, my wife, for the first time, and what she was wearing, and what the night was like, and what her voice sounded like, she having not yet lost the last traces of her Philly-girl accent), I've been known to misplace whole other swaths of memory, making it impossible, for example, to provide the specific details of how I ended up in New Mexico one New Year's Day watching a friend of mine eat glass on a dare. I remember being in a bar in Buffalo (the start of many of my favorite restaurant stories). I remember bracing myself for the drive back to Rochester with a couple rails of Bolivian marching powder. And then I remember the Midwest. Apparently I'd taken a wrong turn onto the interstate and thought it wise to just keep going.

And it's lucky for some restaurants that I have this tendency to mislay the mental index cards on which I've recorded unpleasant meals of my past, but lucky for me, I have Laura, who -- like an elephant or Nina Zagat -- has never forgotten one bite of food that's ever crossed her lips. Or mine. So when I announced a couple of weeks ago that the weather had grown too unseasonably sweltering for us to eat anything but Indian food, she said that was wonderful, as long as I didn't plan on returning to Star of India.


Star of India

3102 South Parker Road, 303-755-1921. Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday- Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday- Sunday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Monday- Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday

Lamb samosa: $4.50
Chicken pakora: $4.95
Vegetable biryani: $10.95
Tandoori mixed grill: $16.95< br>Chicken tikka masala: $11.95
Saag paneer: $9.95
Chicken korma: $10.95
Naan: $1.75
Lassi: $2.95

There then followed an argument of the sort that's become increasingly frequent in the Sheehan household. I asked her "Why not Star of India?" She said because I'd been there already and didn't like it. I said she was mad -- that I'd never been there in my life. She suggested (demanded, really) that I make an appointment with a neurologist to try and figure out exactly what was wrong with me that I couldn't remember something as simple as having eaten at a restaurant where the food was so hot I'd cried like a six-year-old girl. I suggested she go see a shrink to try and figure out what was wrong with her that she would maliciously insinuate that I'd been to a restaurant that I'd never been to just to fuck with me. She said she was insinuating nothing and that I was just retarded.

Things degenerated from there.

And even though she was correct (an archaeological excavation of my dining notes decided the issue in her favor), we went to Star of India anyway. There was really never any question of where we'd wind up. The argument hadn't truly been about dinner, but marital turf -- about who was right and who was wrong and other coup-counting nonsense that makes the vicious, fight-to-the-death struggle that is marriage such a happy institution. And one of the benefits of the sinkholes in my memory is that I can return to restaurants over and over, each time being like the first time when I never know what I'm going to find. I'm like a goldfish that forgets one side of its bowl when it's on the other and is always surprised by the little castle in the middle.

Still, how could I have forgotten a place that tints a strip-mall parking lot with the smoky scent of its tandoor ovens? When the front doors are open and the wind is just right, you can smell Star of India from Parker Road -- an acre away. And inside, it's like being wrapped in a blanket of spice. You settle into one of the booths along the wall -- upholstered in the regal color of a young burgundy and set with embroidered pillows for your back -- and simply lose yourself in a world of foreign perfumes.

As I sat down, I suddenly found my memories of Star of India -- and of my poor, abused palate. I distinctly recalled how, after eating just a taste of the vegetables and napalm spécialité de la maison, I'd sat there, eyes tearing, thinking to myself that I must've done something cruel to the chef in a past life for him to want to hurt me this way, and hoping I wasn't going to have to explain myself to the server when I asked for a to-go box after one or two bites.

This time though (and with a little prodding from Laura), I was more careful. It took just one more pitiless Goan vindaloo with potatoes -- which made me wonder how the British survived their colonial adventures without simply exploding -- to discover the secret to ordering at Star of India: Ask for what you want. Exactly what you want. Be firm. Repeat yourself. Make abundantly clear precisely the level of spice you want, and don't back down. It may help to invent some sort of story for the waiter -- like saying that you're a gigantic baby and can't take anything hotter than tepid oatmeal, or that you just underwent tongue surgery and anything too hot will cause the top of your head to fall right off into the soup.

It's not that the servers are callous or the service careless; on the contrary, I found the staff well-versed on every corner of the menu and incredibly friendly and accommodating. Each dish comes out in a pretty copper chafing bowl, fired with candles -- the smell of melting wax mingling with the scent of toasted cardamom, caraway, cinnamon and exotic spices -- and filled nearly to overflowing in a show of unrestrained generosity from the kitchen. But to order without stating your preference is to get the kitchen's default setting, which is hot as hell, and to ask for anything hotter than normal (which I did) is pure masochism -- the nuclear option, so to speak, for those with asbestos bellies and tongues made of leather. Star of India's cooks just seem to have a blind spot for heat.

That could simply be the work of genetics, because, really, it's impossible to make bland Indian food. The country's cuisine is a tightrope walk between the heat of curry and the sting of fiery herbs on one side, the cool smoothness of yogurt and the placating sweetness of mangoes and tamarind on the other. But once you turn down the heat, you recognize that the cooks here are amazingly talented flavor contortionists. A saag paneer ordered hot was pure pain with a little spinach mixed in. The same saag ordered with no specific temperature requested was still hot, but in a strange, almost greasy way -- the heat bleeding off the sides of the tongue and leaving a little room for the blunt creaminess and spikes of tamer flavors to sneak through. But asking for it mild suddenly opened up a swirl of gentle spices -- black pepper and cardamom and the musky solidity of the creamed spinach, with the delicate, milky squeak of the cubes of paneer cheese buried within -- and relegated the heat to a kind of syncopated kick-cymbal crash of sharpness that bloomed on the back of the tongue only when the next forkful was already on its way. This version of the dish was addictive -- a lot of pleasure with just a little pain, the light S&M of the culinary world.

Heat isn't the only variable at Star of India. On my first return visit, I had the best chicken pakora (Indian chicken fingers to the layman) I'd tried in Denver. Deep-brown chunks of tandoor-roasted white meat had been coated with chickpea batter and deep-fried, their herbed crusts carrying a cross-hatch pattern that showed where a second fryer basket had been placed on top of them while they cooked, to keep them from bobbing up in the oil, and the chicken inside was lightly flavored by the earthy smoke of the clay oven. When I ordered this dish a second time, though, my little pile of battered Indian McNuggets looked completely different. These were pale gold, the red tint of the tandoor on the surface of the chicken showing through a thinner, more delicate batter. And they'd been dusted with some dry spice blend that was like Chinese five-spice powder in one bite, like the kind of celery-salt-and-garlic-powder mix you sprinkle on campfire hamburgers the next. Suddenly, this was the best chicken pakora I'd tried in Denver.

While such inconsistencies might indicate problems in other kitchens, that's not the case at Star of India. There's no ideal taste profile for Indian food, no matter what its regional derivation. Because of the swirl of spices, the multiple layers of heat and sweet and smoky and savory and cool and bitter and blunt flavors, it stands as one of the very few world cuisines that's made better by its unpredictability.

The sweet and salty lassis pointed up the dual potential of plain yogurt -- one better on a hot afternoon, the other at the end of a cool evening. A mixed platter of tandoori meats and vegetables showed how flaky, oily fish better absorbed the smoke of the oven, while chunks of lamb showcased the sweetness of the turmeric rub and chicken balanced the two, then changed entirely when doused with lemon and changed again when dabbed with cool, milky raita. The vegetable biryani came on with such an overwhelming flood of sensations and vegetable essences that the effects were impossible to catalogue.

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Laura and I shared a copper bowl of warm chicken korma -- the sauce made with gentle, sweet-hot yellow curry, whipped yogurt and coconut for sugar -- and marveled at how it tasted one way (milky and full) when spooned over fragrant basmati rice, and another (thin, with a background flavor almost like honey) when scooped up with a pinch of naan bread feathered with charred clarified butter (called ghee, and used in nearly every aspect of Indian cooking). The lamb samosa on the side -- big, flaky, pastry hand grenades stuffed with ground lamb -- were dry and somewhat disappointing, but balancing that was a salver of chicken tikka masala that our server insisted we have, more or less ordering it for us because it was his favorite and he was sure that we'd love it.

We did. The sauce was a psychedelic swirl of tomato-thickened yogurt and what tasted like dozens of spices that popped up recognizably in one bite, vanished in the next. I had spoonfuls of the masala that were terrible -- one herb or one spice or one piece of chicken getting arrogant and placing itself too forward of the backscatter of complementary flavors -- but these were followed by bites that were absolutely sublime.

Star of India is one of those restaurants that almost demands you become a regular; it insists -- by dint of season and temperature shifts and a menu that's constantly changing even though, to my knowledge, it's never gained or lost a single dish -- that you return again and again to taste new favorites and old friends that evolve the way moods do, without cause and often in unexpected directions. No two meals here are ever the same. No two plates. No two bites.

And that's something worth remembering.

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