Tava opened one year ago behind Trader Joe's in Town & Country Village in Palo Alto. It was the brainchild of Hasnain Zaidi and two college friends, who started their careers in corporate finance but soon heeded the call for something more exciting, rewarding and fulfilling. The partners have a second location near the financial district in San Francisco.
"The perception of Indian food is that it is mysterious, heavy, unhealthy, expensive and complicated," Zaidi said. "At Tava, we use grass-fed lamb, roast and grind all our spices in-house, and make our own dough. It's all about achieving complex layers of healthy flavors."
Tava Indian Kitchen is a diminutive space: a place to chow down, not get overly comfortable in. There are two tables that seat four each inside and five tables and a picnic bench outside, weather permitting. Be aware: During the school year, the backpack brigade from Palo Alto High School inhabits the area from about 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Not that they are unruly, but it just congests a very small space.
It's cafeteria-style and the food is assembled behind a Plexiglas shield but right before your eyes. A "tava" is a flat griddle, in this case a custom-made griddle, used to flatten and heat the dough ball into flatbread. The stretchy, chewy whole-wheat flatbread is used as a wrap for the burroti, a clever Indian-style burrito. The creations are stuffed and stretched to the limits.
The burroti ($6.99) can be filled with marinated, slow-roasted shredded lamb; marinated chunks of grilled chicken; or vegetarian garbanzo beans that are steeped in ginger and garlic then cooked in coconut milk. Those are the bases, and then there's a choice of sauces, tikka (tomato base) or daal (lentil). Finally, a selection of mild to hot curry sauces all topped off with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and chilies.
That's one fat burroti, but it can be difficult to eat, especially the last bites when the ingredients want to spill out. It can also be doughy where the folds come together. Despite those minor impediments, the burroti was delicious. I particularly liked the chicken-filled wrap with the tikka sauce. The protein-rich daal (lentil) sauce was chunkier and blander and needed the curry to unify the flavors.
There were other ways of eating the same ingredients, sans flatbread, made as a rice bowl or a salad bowl. The rice-lamb bowl ($7.99) was enticing with generous helpings of both rice and the mouthwatering lamb that was blanketed with the tikka sauce: a tomato-cream, yogurt and 14-spice concoction. The bowl was topped off with fresh chopped vegetables. I chose the medium-spicy cilantro-curry sauce to accompany. Very filling.
There were other curry sauces to consider, tame to fiery, including the Tava Lava made with ghost peppers (bhut jolokia), one of the hottest peppers in the world — 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. Don't worry: They blend it with other, less lethal ingredients. It's a curry you will remember for a few hours.
If the burroti, salad or rice bowls aren't quite enough to sate the appetite, $3 will get you a bag of garlic naan chips with choice of chutneys for dipping — enough to share.
Beverages are limited to soft drinks and a mango lassi ($2.79).
Tava Indian Kitchen is probably not the best place for a business meeting or a romantic repast. With a price tag of around $10 with beverage, though, it is a great place for quick, delicious, nourishing Indian food.
It's a small space with big flavors. I was impressed with the overall quality and that just about everything was made on premises. And parking wasn't an issue, even at noontime.
Tava Indian Kitchen
Town and Country Village
855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Hours: Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Outdoor dining: yes
Private parties: n/a
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: n/a