Despite its ostensible appearance of ethnic homogeneity, San Diego is a diverse city with many ethnic groups living in close proximity to each other. It is a stew of Caucasian, Hispanic, African American, Asian and others, some of whom reside in close communities while others are interspersed in the general population. But most ethnic groups have some central meeting place, where they gather to eat, shop, talk and just be together.
San Diego is home to a small population of residents from India. Emigrees from the large continent have come here to establish roots and build their prosperity. Their demand for familiar flavors when dining out has helped several Indian restaurants to flourish. Some restaurants, like Bombay in Hillcrest and Monsoon in the Gaslamp, have blended traditional recipes with Western influences and have built a loyal clientele, which include many non-Indian diners. Others, like Ashoka, are perhaps more traditional in their culinary ideas.
"Ashoka The Great Cuisine of India" is located in a small strip center near Miramar and Black Mountain Road that is a vibrant center of local Indian activity and commerce. It contains one of the few Hindu temples in our city. Two rows of stores branch off from the sides of the temple and sell merchandise and food that is targeted that appeals to local Indian residents.
Several service businesses are also located near there. This center is popular. Ashoka is right in the middle.
The restaurant "Ashoka The Great" is named after a powerful monarch of India who apparently used cruelty and terror early in his reign to maintain control. But, later on, he converted to Buddhism and changed under its influence. He then established rules in his kingdom that promulgated virtue and goodness. Less than 100 years ago, archeologists were able to decipher "edicts" written by Ashoka that were carved into rocks. These edicts fostered respect to elders and teachers, generosity to the poor, moderation in all things and harmlessness to all living things.
Ashoka seems to be little known outside of India but is regarded as one of history's great moral figures.
The restaurant is large and appears to have been put together by combining several stores into one large space. The walls are fittingly a saffron color and are decorated with pictures that contain Indian themes. The place is not fancy but very functional.
Then came the happy surprise -- the food is excellent.
I visited on a Tuesday, when the dinner buffet was available. It is offered just on Mondays and Tuesdays. The buffet selections were so tempting that I opted to serve myself rather than order from the menu. It also gave me the opportunity to try many dishes all at one time.
The chicken and the naan are prepared in the tandoor, a special clay over that is heated to over 800 degrees. As a result, the chicken takes on a deep red look and a unique flavor that is sometimes smokey and sometimes sweet. Despite its ruddy appearance, the interior of the chicken was moist and soft. Tandoori chicken is a standard in most Indian restaurants but this was some of the best I've had.
Naan, which is served to the table, is a flat Indian bread that is prepared in the tandoor by slapping the dough against the sides of the oven. It comes out fully cooked and piping hot, so much so that I had to be careful with my first bites. Garlic naan, sprinkled with garlic, is excellent. It is also prepared stuffed with a variety of ingredients such as cherries, coconut, raisins and nuts (Kabuli Naan), minced lamb (Keema Naan) and other ingredients described on the menu.
Appetizers includes Samosa, either meat or vegetable, which are lightly spiced turnovers. Pakora are fritters that are stuffed with chicken, vegetable or paneer, a cheese that is made in traditional Indian ways.
Lamb is another staple in many Indian restaurants and is served in Ashoka prepared in more than half a dozen different ways. Lamb Tikka Masala is marinated in spices and then served in a curry sauce. I've enjoyed this in many Indian restaurants but it had a special flavor here.
Vegetarians often frequent Indian restaurants because of the preparation styles using spices and curries that can attract even carnivores like me. The Alu Gobi Masala, cauliflower and potato cooked in Indian spices, was just delicious. Half a page of the menu lists more than a dozen tempting dishes.
"Our recipes come from northern India," Ranjit, the acting manager, told me. "Our dishes are only moderately spicy. We do not make them as hot as they do in the south of India."
The best way to wash away any spicy heat is with a glass of cold Indian beer.
Taj comes in large bottles of "liquid chill" that adds to the flavor and setting of the meal.
Catering to a largely ethnic clientele, Ashoka maintains traditional recipes and flavors. With the low overhead, prices are inexpensive. The dinner buffet is a terrific value. Visiting Ashoka is possibly the next best thing to traveling to the continent.
Ashoka The Great Cuisine of India is located at 9474 Black Mountain Road, close to Miramar Road and Interstate 15. Call (858) 695-9749 for reservations.
Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be published as Letters to the Editor.