The standard Indian restaurant experience varies little from place to place in Denver, or even from city to city across the country. Familiar starters — samosas, pakora, papadam — lead to entrees of chicken, lamb and perhaps shrimp or fish in a number of different sauces that get lumped under the misleading heading of "curry." The lineup includes vindaloo, tikka masala, korma and a few other preparations, as well as such vegetarian options as saag paneer (spinach and cheese), aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes) and dal (lentils). Round out the roster with roasted meats from the tandoor oven and some heavily seasoned rice, and you've got a model for Indian menus from coast to coast.
But different styles of Indian cooking have recently found their way to Denver, styles that don’t rely on the age-old formulaic compendium known as northern Indian — which is really a hodgepodge of greatest hits from around India, sometimes by way of Great Britain. We’ve experienced tastes of South Indian cuisine at Biju’s Little Curry Shop, where the sauces aren’t weighed down by too much cream or coconut milk and you can see (and smell) fresh batches of chiles being cooked down into blazing condiments to accompany aromatic dishes. We’ve sampled such unfamiliar foods as Cindhura Reddy’s fire-engine red chicken 65 (a dish from Chennai on India’s southeast coast) and kathi rolls at the brand-new Namkeen at Zeppelin Station. Until Namkeen opened, Reddy was known for her Italian cooking at Spuntino.
And now franchises from Hyderabad and other South Indian cities are sweeping into Denver's southern suburbs, bringing with them a range of new dishes, some with familiar names like biryani but others with ingredients, sauces and textures not common in the northern Indian canon. Hyderabad House, at 7605 East Arapahoe Road in Centennial, is one such chain, but you'd never know the place was anything other than a family-run restaurant unless you'd happened to visit one of its 23 sibling eateries in South India or the dozen or so spread across the U.S.
Hyderabad House doesn't have the precision, cookie-cutter feel or pared-down menu that are the marks of many chain restaurants. Instead, walking into this restaurant feels like you're being welcomed into someone's living room during a family reunion. There's no host station (just a cashier at the bakery counter near the kitchen), but several employees will likely look up when you arrive, and more than one will offer you a table. English is minimal, so it's best to just go with the flow and follow a sweeping hand gesture to the nearest open seat.
The restaurant occupies a freestanding building that was home to both a Middle Eastern spot and a Mongolian barbecue in recent years. New tile floors and wallpaper add a modern touch, but leftover decor and older booths, as well as a row of curved, sunroom-style windows, hint that the building may have had its origins as a breakfast chain in the 1980s.
The dining room feels a little chaotic and extemporaneous, just like one of those family gatherings where everyone comes and goes, food is served in rounds, and a distant relative just hands you a plate of something delicious before moving on. At Hyderabad, you're likely to see a big group at a long center table celebrating a special event while pairs of young professionals lean in close over shared plates.
Make sure to get a menu if you want to order à la carte, but on many days, Hyderabad offers specials where you pay one price for an unlimited set of dishes — almost like a buffet, but with no buffet line. Thursday evening, for example, brings unlimited dosas (thin, crisp crepes made with rice and black gram bean flour); this deal is a good way to try different stewed meats, vegetables and sauces, since the dosas come with a number of options. There's also a "Lunchbox" special, with two entrees, rice and flatbread during lunch hours, and a "Quick Bites" menu from 4 to 7 p.m., with dishes priced from $4 to $7. And since Hyderabad House has a liquor license, you can make it a true happy hour with a selection of Indian beers.
Lunchtime on a Sunday brings a unique experience: the raju gari bhojanam (also called the Unlimited Telugu Meal), a bottomless selection of dishes mostly from the states of Telengana and Andhra Pradesh. This special starts with pulav rice, a spiced buttermilk drink called majjiga, fried flatbread called batura and a soft-cooked carrot dish known as poriyal, all served on a banana-leaf-lined silver platter shaped like an artist's palette.
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From there, you can opt for vegetarian or meat dishes, which are brought past your table by waiters carrying serving containers filled with stewed and fried proteins and vegetables. The options vary weekly, but vegetable offerings may include eggplant, potatoes, dondakaya (a type of gourd) or savory doughnut-shaped fritters made from lentil flour. Goat, chicken and fish are the most common proteins, each served in a number of preparations, all boldly spiced and tender. Goat and chicken are cut into small pieces that may or may not include bones; the fish arrives in cross-sections with the spine and bones running through the center, but careful nibbling is rewarded with steamy bits of fish coated in a fiery dry rub.
Silverware is scarce at Hyderabad; we managed by tearing off pieces of flatbread and using them to scoop up some of the wetter stews, then resorting to rice to mop up the rest (after a late request for forks was forgotten). Regulars at other tables seemed accustomed to tidy hands-only dining, but it's tricky if you're not used to employing your fingertips as utensils for everything on your plate. You may need to flag down one of the servers for a second round of anything you liked, but they'll keep it coming as long as you're still hungry.
Before you go to the restaurant, check its Facebook page (which is updated regularly) for a rundown of everything on the unlimited menu. If you opt for the à la carte menu, dum biryani is the house specialty, made by cooking marinated goat or chicken together with rice so that the many spices meld into one intoxicating casserole. If you like it hot, look for chicken 65 or its vegetarian counterpart, gobi 65, made with cauliflower. Then the next time you're in the hipper RiNo neighborhood, you can compare it with the version served at Namkeen.
South Indian cooking is growing in popularity in Colorado, in large part because of the number of college graduates from India moving to the south suburbs for jobs in the Denver Tech Center and other nearby business districts. Lighter, spicier and more novel than what most of us think of as Indian food, it's a cuisine that reminds us just how big and diverse India really is — virtually unlimited, judging by the ever-changing Sunday meal at Hyderabad House.