Last month I was invited to a supper club meeting at Tangra Asian Fusion, an Indian-Chinese restaurant with locations in Elmhurst and Sunnyside (the Elmhurst location is called Tangra Masala). My friend who belonged to the supper club described the cuisine as mainly Chinese food infused with Indian character—"super junky and fun!" was what she wrote. Well, I make it a point in my life never to turn down anything super junky and fun.
We chose the location in Sunnyside, which is large enough to host Indian banquets and weddings. (It does so, from time to time, I am told.) It really was a gargantuan space. We were thirty to a table, our supper club party taking up the length of three or four tables, and still it felt empty inside a space so very baroque as to be charming in its own right.
You can read Andrew Coe's review of the restaurant here; I will limit my impressions of Indian-Chinese cuisine to one tentative observation: that the dishes which are more Chinese than Indian were better to me than the dishes featuring Indian foods. Case in point: a chicken dish that was essentially Chinese-take-out-style deep-fried chicken coated in an Indian "curry" sauce of sorts was indeed junky and fun, whereas cubes of deep-fried paneer with a Chinese-style brown sauce with cilantro, was junky but not fun at all. (Chalky paneer, gloopy sauce.)
I liked most things I tried pretty well, but nothing really spoke to me until my noodle dish came out: lo mein noodles, cooked tangra masala style, which is their house-blend of spices and seasonings ($10.50). (The dish is actually called chow mein on the menu, but the noodles are sautéed in the style which is typically called lo mein, not fried.) The dish arrived in a small metal pan, noodles fiery red and piled as high as they could be. I took one bite, then said, yummy! It was like all the right flavor buttons were being pushed in my brain. I ate and ate, and probably would have polished off the whole pan had I not also been partaking of the general sprawl of junky delights.
Here is a confession: I have never liked lo mein. Once, when given first pick in a paper bag of Chinese take-out food—I had among my choices crab Rangoon, leaden spring rolls, lo mein, and deep-fried wontons, I chose the crab Rangoon over the lo mein, on the presumption that I already knew I disliked lo mein, and Rangoon rhymed with platoon, which was pleasing to me for no real reason. But really, can you imagine the distaste I must have had for lo mein, such that Rangoon would be preferred?
To me lo mein is the symbol, the culprit, the culmination of everything that I dislike about Chinese fast food. Although I confess once more to every now and then enjoying a take-out carton of shrimp with lobster sauce.
I think it is primarily the texture of lo mein that I find so disagreeable. At its worst, it is mealy with the taste of curdled, overly eggy custard. At is best, it is a bland yellow sprawl coated in sweetish garlic and orange sauce. Lo mein lacks the chewy resistance of other fresh noodles; the al-dente bounciness of dried noodles.
I would not have ordered the lo/chow mein dish at all, but my waiter confided to me (well, okay, more like he offered casually) that ever since working in the restaurant, he'd been eating the tangra masala lo mein for lunch, every single day.
I don't know that I would want the dish every day, but I would happily eat it every month. It was just so very different from all lo mein/chow mein dishes I have eaten. Sure, the noodles themselves were not texturally very interesting. But each strand was coated in a thick-ish red sauce reminiscent of the crust you sometimes find on tandoori chicken.
Actually, that's exactly what the dish reminded me of—as though the noodles had wandered into a tandoori oven and come out a few minutes later, anointed with tandoori essence. I tasted cumin, cinnamon, ginger, garlic. Maybe cloves. What's more, it got me thinking that it was only with a bland and dense noodle such as lo mein that you could get away with such a thick, assertive coating.
(FYI, on that night, I ordered my tangra masala chow mein noodles with "mixed" proteins, though they can be sautéed vegetarian, or with only meat, or with only seafood.)
I liked the chow mein so much as to pay a return visit. This time, we tried the Singapore noodles ($10.50), which were a very serviceable version, but nothing special. Also, their flavor was no more "Indian" to me than that of any "curry"-flavored rice noodle dish, the kind you'd find in a Cantonese joint. Oh well.
Tangra Masala's chow mein not only made me reconsider the merits of lo/chow mein; it also piqued my interest in fusion noodle dishes from other cuisines. I am told there is a Chinese-Guyanese place in Queens with a chow mein dish on its menu. And at home, I have been shaking various curry blends onto my noodles, just to see what happens. Sometimes that's all it takes to liven up the tried-and-true.