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Masalaa's exotic vegetarian fare hits the spot

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Anyone with special food needs or requests knows how frustrating it can be to open up a menu and see only a scant handful of plates that you can or would actually eat. There are a few restaurants in the metro area where vegetarians can pick and choose from across the menu to the heart's delight, and Masalaa, 3140 South Parker Road, is one of them. The restaurant has earned several awards from publications and organizations across Denver (including six Best of Denver awards from Westword alone), so it's no surprise that it's packed on a weeknight, with tables full of families hailing from India and hipster couples enjoying a night out.

Everything about Masalaa -- except the food -- is understated. There are decorations, but the adornments and overall atmosphere lean toward the plain side of the spectrum. The effect showcases exactly what Masalaa is -- a restaurant tucked inside a strip mall in the suburbs; nothing more, nothing less. But it clearly is more, which a glimpse inside the menu confirms. Masalaa offers a dizzying spread of Indo-Chinese food, combination plates and traditional Indian food that will make any vegetarian (and gluten-free folks, and many vegans, too) leap with delight, because the vast menu is wide open to non-carnivores.

Pictured above is the aloo mutter ($9.95), potatoes and green peas in a creamy gravy. The peas were so fresh they burst on the teeth, and roasting the potatoes before adding them to the curry gave the dish a richer flavor than you might usually find.

The appetizer menu alone offers more than a dozen veggie-friendly plates, including these mulaga bajji (on the left, $3.95) and panner pakoda (on the right, $4.95). The mulaga bajji are jalapeno peppers dipped in chickpea batter and deep-fried; the panner pakoda is house-made cheese given the same treatment. (Fair warning: The mulaga bajji is really spicy, but the panner pakoda is just the thing to cut through some of that heat.) A perennial favorite is the palak paneer ($10.95), fresh spinach and that creamy house-made cheese in a curry. And besides these delicious entrees, there are several crepe-style items, dessert, bread, traditional beverages and three combination thalis that combine the best of all worlds. For a look at the full menu, visit www.masalaausa.com/menu.php?r_id=1.

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