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Trekking to Lakewood for a Touch of the Exotic at India Nepal Oven

Saturday lunch is the best time for an all-you-can-eat buffet. You don't have to worry about returning semi-comatose to work and you've probably already done yard work or something else outdoorsy to justify the added caloric load. Indian restaurants, especially, tend toward low-risk, high-reward buffets, with plenty of potential for filling, if not dazzling, fare. Still, I'm more of a fan of ordering from the full menu, especially at places like India Nepal Oven that hide less common specialties on the print menu while proffering an array of popular steam-table favorites on the buffet. Ordering from the menu, I can still leave uncomfortably full -- only with food that I selected myself and was fresh-cooked just for me. See also: Khazana Indian Restaurant Focus on Tamil Cuisine India Nepal Oven, way out by Southwest Plaza in Lakewood, has the feel of a mid-1980s cruise ship, with a gold, white and Mediterranean blue decor that gives flashbacks of my recent month of Greek cuisine. Aside from a few tapestries and prints, the decor doesn't feel particularly Indian, but displays vestiges of a former Italian restaurant in the tile entrance and the grapevine flourishes in the restrooms.

The blaring Bollywood duets, however, anchor the restaurant firmly in the subcontinent, as do the aromas of curries and other warming spice blends. Roused by the music, I wanted more of a raucous market atmosphere, but instead I got the sedate, suburban strip-mall setting typical of the all-you-can-eat scene. Indian beers and a little street food might liven things up, I thought, so I ordered a round of Kingfishers and a plate of samosa chaat -- like Indian nachos with a sweet and sour tamarind sauce, yogurt and deep-fried crisps covering a couple of fat, potato-stuffed samosas.

Another round of beers, Lucky Buddhas in lumpy green bottles this time, and I was beginning to tap my feet to the high-pitched horns and warbling vocals of the music. The other customers pressed on stoically through their buffet meals, oblivious or inured to the songs blasting from the corner speakers.

I ordered a basket of buttery, multi-layered paratha -- similar to flour tortillas, only thicker and moister -- to nibble on while waiting for our entrees. We selected malai kofta from the vegetarian menu and lamb thukpa from the Nepalese section. The kofta, vegetarian "meatballs" made with potato and other minced vegetables, were coated in a rich, creamy and mildly spicy sauce (the kitchen offers a spice range from one to ten, with the five giving just a slight kick) studded with cashews and almonds. It was definitely a heavy dish, but bright notes in the sauce and the soft texture of the kofta made it a little too easy to eat.

The Nepalese lamb stew came with thick wheat noodles of the American Beauty variety, but that's where the similarity to Western flavors and textures left off. The tender cubes of lamb soaked up the spicy broth (an eight on the kitchen's scale) redolent of tomato, chiles and a complex curry blend. The server told me I had to squeeze lime wedges over the bowl, which I did, adding an acidity that countered the wintry heft of the broth. In this dish I found a bright cacophony to match the volume of the music that hadn't ceased since we walked in the door.

I'm certain I left the place as full as any one of the buffet indulgers, and at least as satisfied. In terms of Indian and Nepalese cuisine in Denver, India Nepal Kitchen balances tradition with available ingredients. It's not weak or watered-down food but rather alive and vibrant. India is perhaps even more of a melting pot than the U.S., with centuries of influences and migrations crisscrossing multiple cultures and shifting boundaries. Nepalese dishes have made their way south into northern India and can now be found in a strip mall in Lakewood, the original form lost, but the spirit and flavor still there.

Indian menus in Denver tend to stick with tried-and-true preparations, which seems the case here, too. But stepping away from the buffet at least gives the opportunity stray from the familiar into new territory -- even if that's just the western suburbs of Denver.

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