Is this the best lunch deal in the Twin Cities metro? I think it might be. It’s certainly the best Indian lunch deal—and for that matter this was the best Indian meal of any kind I’ve had in Minnesota in 12+ years. I ate it at what is almost literally a hole in the wall in Bloomington, in the same large strip mall that houses TBS Mart. I’ve noticed it out of the corner of my eye over the years but always assumed it was a Middle Eastern place; there’s another Indian place right there and I suppose I assumed there wouldn’t be two Indian places right next to each other like that. Anyway, the lesson, as always, is that I am an idiot. And specifically an idiot who has been denying himself not just an excellent lunch thali for almost a decade now but also the nostalgic charge of eating it in a place that evokes the no-frills canteens and mess halls that are a commonplace in Indian cities. Here, specifically, is what I—and maybe you—had been missing.
Well, I don’t know if I’ve actually denied myself a decade of their lunch thalis. The servers on my visit last week were both new and didn’t know much about the restaurant’s history. However, I was seated next to a very gregarious and pleasant (and hopefully accurate) gent who’s been eating here on his lunch break since they opened and in the course of our long chat on all kinds of topics he told me that the current owners purchased the place some five years or so ago and retooled it as a South Indian restaurant. Before that, he said, it was a biryani and kabab specialist (hence the name, I suppose). But since the overhaul their menu has slanted South Indian, in particular in the direction of Chettinad and Malabar food. You can get the curry house staples here but on the basis of my thali I would say that it’s the South Indian stuff you should be going for here. Not because the North Indian stuff is bad—I didn’t try any of it—but because the thali experience suggests the South Indian stuff is very good.
That thali comes in vegetarian and non-vegetarian options (both for just $9.99). What do you get if you order it? I got the non-veg thali and this was what was on the large plate that showed up after about 15 minutes:
A large bowl of steamed rice in the center with a crisp, freshly fried papad on top. Around the large rice bowl there were nine smaller bowls and a mini dosa. What did the bowls contain? Why am I asking all these rhetorical questions? Rasam (very good), sambhar (good), beetroot poriyal (very good), channa masala (very good), a marinated and crisply-fried chicken lollipop (very good), Chettinad-style chicken curry (good), veg biryani (good), house-made curd (good), and beetroot halwa (very good). Though I did not get any refills, I think you can get the sambhar/dal, rasam etc. refilled. Though this is so much food, I don’t think you would need to. It also comes in a smaller “mini-thali” version. My gregarious neighbour had one of those (rice + 4 bowls) and he got a refill of the sambhar.
As you can see from the parenthetical evaluations above, everything on the plate was at least good. I can’t remember the last time I said that of any Indian restaurant in the US. The only thing I would have liked was a bit of achaar/pickle to go with it all but that’s a very minor nitpick. And the thali is not constant either. The meat options on the non-veg thali change every day—the server said Fridays feature fish curries—and my neighbour said the veg offerings are not static either. In other words, you’re unlikely to eat the same meal twice. But if you want to eat this excellent thali you’ll have to go on a weekday between 11 and 3. At dinner and on the weekends it’s a la carte only. If my experience is anything to go by, you will likely find the lunch crowd dominated by single men eating alone or in pairs. At dinner and on the weekend, my neighbour said, there are families.
The other thing you shoud know—though it will be obvious from the images below—is that this really is a no-frills restaurant. It is tiny, there is no decor to speak of and the seating is very basic. Water is served in plastic cups (though you do get a metal spoon and fork). You can certainly find places that have spent more on decor—for example, Tandoor—but I will happily give all of that up for the quality of the food at Kabob’s. The food does not come out in a hurry—the kitchen seems to take the time and care to prepare everything well. As to whether this translates to the a la carte menu, I’m not sure but I expect it does and I hope to confirm it very soon. In the meantime, I can think of no reason to eat any Indian restaurant’s lunch buffet over their freshly prepared thali of a much higher quality. And frankly, I can’t think of where else I’d rather stop for lunch of any kind between Minneapolis and our town.
Take a look at the pictures in the slideshow below and scroll down to see what’s coming next.
With tax and generous tip this came to just about $13. Which is also cheaper than all the other Indian lunch buffets I’ve had in Bloomington (at Tandoor and also at Surabhi and Hyderabad Indian Grill). Really, for the quantity and quality of food this is hard to beat. I would highly recommend Kabob’s to anyone looking for a good Indian meal or just a good lunch. Oh yes, the address: 7814 Portland Ave S, Bloomington, MN 55420
In other intriguing news, my well-informed neighbour also told me that the location of Darbar in Apple Valley is about to be taken over—if it hasn’t already—by a local franchise of another South Indian chain, Kumar’s Mess, which has a few locations in Texas and a couple in New England. I’m very excited to check them out too when they open. The South Indian food scene here has really exploded in recent years, and my anecdotal sense that much of it is feeding relatively newly-arrived South Indian immigrants in the southern suburbs seems to be borne out by the growing number of South Indian-inflected restaurants and grocery stores in the area.
However, my next reports of eating out will once again be from our New York trip—I think I have three of them left to do. Two of those this week and then in a week I’ll have an account of lunch at the Keg & Case complex in St. Paul. Maybe another recipe too this weekend. Booze reviews in between.