“Masala,” a varying blend of spices, and “curry,” a sauce that is also seasoned with a varying blend of spices, are ubiquitous terms in the Indian and Indian-American culinary cannon. Modern or traditional, restaurants interpret the myriad flavors of the region’s distinct cuisines via their own take on these Indian staples. The trick is to try them all, and then tell us which ones you liked best and why.
Prabh Indian Kitchen
Colorful garlands bedeck the patio (and stand out amidst the natural redwood drapery), but families frequent the downtown Mill Valley restaurant for the South Indian specialties available at lunch (thali, dosa, uttappam) and the house special chicken tikka kabab marinated in a tandoori masala with turmeric, fenugreek leaves, cardamom, mace, red chili and lemon.
24 Sunnyside Ave, Mill Valley
Kashmiri naan with dates and coconut is just one of the dishes that expresses the flavors of India’s northerly reaches. Another is momos, steamed dumplings stuffed with ground chicken, chopped vegetables and chef Timothy Maharjan’s masala. They arrive with a side of tomato chutney to boost the flavor to another dimension.
227 Third St, San Rafael
A western Indian state with a history of Portuguese colonization, Goa’s cuisine reflects unique dishes like xacuti with toasted coconut and regional spices. The vindaloos of Goa are known for their balanced flavor, but don’t come expecting the chef here to lay off the chiles — just be sure to order a vegetable biryani and a side of raita to cool things down.
2007 Novato Blvd, Novato
Taste of the Himalayas
The famous mountain region which encompasses Bhutan and Nepal and skirts northern India and Tajikistan informs the menu at this petite restaurant. Familiar curries and tandoori dishes abound, but we like the regional specialties like jasha maroo (from Bhutan) and churi pama (from Tibet) and the rice salad with chat vinaigrette.
2633 Bridgeway, Sausalito
We love the mozzarella-topped quesadilla/pizza/naan cultural mashup that emerges from the tandoor fragrant with fenugreek, chaat masala and fresh coriander leaves and the lamb wrap infused with masala and tamarind chutney, a plentiful repast to be enjoyed on the sunny patio. The gluten-free onion fritters are a must for first-timers, while experienced eaters will savor the mushroom makhani and malai kofta —they’re mild and slightly sweet.
7282 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Lagunitas
Chef Heena Patel shows off her Gujarati roots (the region northwest of Mumbai that counts Gandhi as a native son), Mumbai upbringing and California spirit, riffing on regionally inspired dishes from all walks of life. Mumbai street food dish pav bhajji is reimagined as a puff served with curry dipping sauce. Paratha, done up in the style favored by her husband, Paresh, arrives topped with Point Reyes Blue Cheese and a side of fruit compote.
1275 Minnesota St, San Francisco
On a stretch of Clement Street better known for dim sum takeout and Asian groceries, a slender South Asian restaurant has made a lasting mark for its family-friendly service and classic goat curry. A recent menu addition is palak chat, or organic spinach leaves pan-fried in a gluten-free chickpea and rice flour batter. The masala is the kitchen’s own, but ask for the house’s fiery pickles to add more heat to the dish.
908 Clement St, San Francisco
The San Francisco location in SoMa is known for its cocktails (an Imli Express riffs on a margarita with layered heat and a pop of tamarind), but you’re here for the oyster solkadhi. An essential drink for cooling the body during blistering Goan summers, the traditional digestif is reinterpreted with kokum, a regional, slightly sour fruit that chef Sujan Sarkar uses to amplify the oyster’s naturally briny flavor. The bivalves’ presentation atop green moss and sea rocks with a whiff of dry ice “smoke” adds a hint of the warm Arabian Sea to even the chilliest San Francisco evening.
333 Brannan St, San Francisco
Peninsula and South Bay
Formerly known as Rasa, the Michelin-starred Indian restaurant rebranded with locations now in Burlingame and San Carlos. The new menu in Burlingame focuses a bit more on the spicier Southern Indian region, where coconut, fresh chilies and seafood are staple ingredients, while San Carlos mixes in more Northern Indian flavors. No matter which location you choose, don’t miss the Aama Sutra cocktail for its blend of mezcal, mango and lava salt that crackles on the palate. The extensive list of “crepes” — dosa, uttapam and pessarathu — express vivid flavors with some of chili’s intense heat, while the daal makhani, finished with homemade butter, is a soothing dose of comfort.
1143 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos; 209 Park Road, Burlingame
Newly opened JAKS boasts a custom bar, PEG Gastropub with a curated microbrewery collection of hefeweizens and IPAs, and a broad patio along with a taste of the continent from chef Prakash Singh. Look for paturi (banana leaf-wrapped fish), along with braised lamb shank, tikka zafrani Parmesan and banarasi paan patta chaat (fried betel leaf served with rose yogurt, mint, pomegranate and chef’s take on rice crispies).
Santa Clara Square Marketplace, 3333 Coronado Place, Santa Clara
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Christina Mueller is a long-time Bay Area food writer. She hails from the East Coast and has spent way too much time in South America and Europe. She discovered her talent as a wordsmith in college and her love of all things epicurean in grad school. She has written for Condé Nast Contract Publishing, Sunset, and the Marin Independent Journal, among others. She volunteers with California State Parks and at her child’s school, and supports the Marin Audubon Society, PEN America, and Planned Parenthood. When she is not drinking wine by a fire, she is known to spend time with her extended family.