Don't judge a book by its cover. That's the lesson we learned when we walked into The Himalayan House on a chilly Thursday night.
The Locust Point restaurant was empty, and at first glance it looked more like a corner store than a place to settle in for dinner. Cases of soda lined one wall; a few canned goods and boxes of old school candy lined the other (candy cigarettes are still for sale?).
But the phone was ringing off the hook. At an Indian spot that delivers, that's usually a good sign. And it was.
Scene & Decor With those refrigerated cases and shelves of grocery products, all bathed in not-so-soothing florescent light, and an interior temperature that hovered someplace between 40 and 60, our first impression was not of an attractive, comfortable restaurant.
The space is deep and narrow, with the kitchen in the back and a scattering of green-checked table clothed tables in the middle. In one aesthetic surprise, the walls of the dining area are covered in large, vibrant Expressionist paintings that would be at home in any trendy wine bar. Here, they added personality but didn't mask the rest of the bare bones decor.
But sometimes, looks just don't matter. Though we were the only people dining in during our visit, we definitely weren't alone. Every couple minutes, someone picked up a carry-out order. Regulars, judging by the warm welcomes they received.
Appetizers The Himalayan House's assorted appetizer platter ($5.99) isn't much of an assortment — just one oversized samosa and a few vegetable pakoras — but it was a good introduction how great the restaurant's food can be.
The samosa was crispy on the outside and stuffed with soft, well-seasoned potatoes. We could've snacked on the pakoras (vegetable fritters lightly fried to a deep orange) until we were completely full.
Add in two sauces for dipping — one sweet and one herbaceous — and the appetizers left us dazzled by their flavors and textures.
Entrees Our dinners were just as satisfying. The menu will look familiar to Indian food connoisseurs, covering all the usual bases, from tandoori-cooked meats to savory vegetarian dishes, plus a handful of Nepalese specialties.
We stuck to the classics, ordering chicken tikka masala ($13.99) and saag paneer ($11.99).
The first thing we noticed about the chicken was that it was tender. No dry stringiness or scary, unidentifiable cuts of meat.
The second thing we noticed was that the creamy tomato sauce was actually spicy, as requested. At so many restaurants, "hot" really means "kind of spicy." At The Himalayan House, it means "hot." Good for them. The sauce wasn't so spicy that we couldn't enjoy the flavor, but it packed a punch.
The saag paneer, with spongy squares of cheese in a chunky, dense spinach sauce, was less creamy than some saags we've tried but thanks to a variety of spices, just as flavorful. The flavor lasted, too, as we ate the leftovers over the next two days. (Since the food was served in to-go containers — and the servings were huge — packing up leftovers was easy.)
Both meals came with (also enormous) servings of fluffy, fragrant basmati rice, cooked so nicely that it, too, was still good the next day.
Dessert Gulab jamun ($2.99), two dense balls of fried cheese swimming in honey and rosewater syrup, were a sweet — and not too large — way to end the meal.
Service The Himalayan House obviously does more business as a carry-out and delivery shop than as a sit-down restaurant. But even though the staff was slammed the entire time we were there, they were careful to keep an eye on our table, making sure we had everything we needed. And we did. The food arrived quickly and exactly as ordered.
When we rose to pay at the counter, our waiter apologized for not being more available. It wasn't necessary; he was just attentive enough and genuinely kind, too.
Heading out the door, we turned around and looked at The Himalayan House with new, wiser eyes. Technically, it still looked like a harshly lit dive. But with our newfound knowledge of the magic that happens in the kitchen, to us, that dive looked beautiful.
The Himalayan House
Back story: A Locust Point favorite since 2006, Himalayan House isn't much to look at but the team in the kitchen turns out satisfying Indian and Nepalese classics with efficiency and a friendly attitude. It does not serve alcohol, but you can bring your own, with no corkage fee.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: The Himalayan House's chicken tikka masala is a great, classic take on the traditional Indian dish. Chunks of chicken, cooked in the tandoor oven until tender and smoky, swimming in creamy tomato sauce. Know this: if you ask for spicy, spicy you will get.
Where: 1522 East Fort Avenue, Baltimore
Contact: 410-528-1271; thehimalayanhouse.com
Open: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover
Bottom line: Expertly prepared classic Indian food, served by a friendly team in a space that's more corner store than fine diningCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun