With vegan parents and witnessing a gradual, global shift toward plant-based foods, I often wonder if a no-meat diet is one I might someday embrace.
Then a lobe of seared foie gras atop a medium-rare steak pushes the thought out of the way.
Other times, like at Taste Buds of India in South Miami, I eat vegetables that are so unexpectedly flavorful, so — dare I say? — meaty, that they’re all I want on my plate.
That happens time and again at Taste Buds of India, which chef-owner Arvind Kumar and partner Amit Singh opened in July. It’s a sister location to a Taste Buds the friends and hospitality veterans put in Coral Springs last year, in response to the area’s growing Indian-American community.
And while they didn’t invest much money in renovating the former Barceloneta Sunset — the walls are crudely painted orange and red, and someone left a discarded kitchen sink outside the restrooms — Kumar and his crew are turning out a skillful range of northern and southern Indian dishes, including several Indian-Chinese specialties, with more hits than misses.
The vegetarian appetizers and entrees are where most of the hits reside.
Lasooni gobi are crunchy little cauliflower florets that are battered, fried, then sauteed with a garlicky tomato sauce. Scoop it up with hot and fresh chile-garlic naan or complimentary papadum that leaves a tingle on the tongue from black pepper.
Paneer pakora are also battered and fried but totally greaseless. The light, airy, curdlike cubes of Indian cottage cheese with a thin, golden, crispy coating are ready to pop as-is, but a dip in Taste Buds’ cooling raita or tangy tamarind sauce is an even better call.
Taste Buds’ veggies don’t have to be fried to be standouts. Look for masala bengan, a tandoori-roasted preparation that brings a bowl of mashed, smoky baby eggplant flesh and skin mixed in a fiery peanut curry with whole dried chiles. The “mild” version (waiters will ask your preferred heat level) brought me so close to the brink of a full-on sweat that I had to see what “hot” was like.
Mirchi ka salan is a similar setup to masala bengan, substituting fat banana peppers for the eggplant. Sure enough, it’s hot. The sauce, from southern India’s Hyderabadi cuisine, lives up to the menu’s promise of being “seismic.” Still, the high heat level didn’t turn off a friend who doesn’t normally like spicy things — a testament to the power of properly cooked veggies.
The menu’s detour into Indian-Chinese cookery begins with manchow soup, similar to Chinese hot-and-sour soup with a thickened brown stock that’s spiked with soy sauce and vinegar. I preferred a big bowl of mulligatawny, with its tomatoey, chicken-and-lentil broth — a warming precursor to the main event.
Other Indian-Chinese dishes are mostly wok-cooked variants of Indian menu items, with amped up sesame, garlic, ginger and onion. Wok-tossed chicken has that familiar cornstarch-coated, flash-fried texture that we know from a lifetime of General Tso and Orange Chicken orders. It wasn’t my favorite thing.
Lamb korma sported too many knuckles of fat and gristle to thoroughly enjoy its creamy, nutty, earthy sauce. Ditto the few chunks of lamb in a special biryani, which left us digging past a lone shrimp to get to the redeeming basmati rice — delicately cooked until perfectly fluffy and an ideal accompaniment for the rest of the meal’s wet food.
Tandoori lobster was a misorder. I was curious to see how quick-cooking lobster meat would fare in the scorching heat of a tandoor oven. The answer came in the form of a dried-out, curled-up specimen that wasn’t worth the effort to coax from its shell.
The young, all-male wait staff is courteous and polite, diligently shoring up a wobbly table or eagerly answering menu questions. The lack of a general manager or floor leader is evident on busy nights, when no one’s around to greet a bottleneck of walk-ins, no one’s behind the bar to sate them with drinks, and no one’s there to bring out a woman’s takeout order; she leaves without it.
There were times when I felt like Grumpy Cat, tapping my toes and glaring at the kitchen door in frustration as I waited long stretches for plates to arrive. Even on a weeknight, Taste Buds is not for those with a lack of patience.
I got over myself, though, when the dishes finally did arrive. Especially the vegetable ones.
And with a cold Taj Mahal lager and a view of the Bollywood flicks playing in the dining room, a little wait for such good food isn’t so bad.
Evan S. Benn is Miami Herald food editor: @EvanBenn