Walking into Punjab Express is a breath of fresh air. What a joy to be able to buy authentic Indian food and to escape the kind of décor that has characterized Indian restaurants in Cape Town for decades. There are no ochre walls here, no dusty flowers and enormous, sticky menus. This is no dimly-lit shrine to exotica.
In fact, Punjab Express and Jamie Oliver might use the same stylist. EAT NAAN and CURRY ON, the poster says. There are exposed brick walls here and fairy lights illuminating a collection of large enamel teapots in the authentic palette of northern India: rose pink, persimmon orange, sky blue and pistachio green. The tables are naked wood and there are craft beers in the open fridges.
Unlike the echoey emptiness of many a Cape Town Indian restaurant on a weeknight, Punjab Express sometimes has queues out the door.
The food tastes better. My chicken biryani was a knock-out. When I lifted the lid of my little clay pot the aroma of fresh cardamom wafted up like a cobra from a basket. I wasn’t just delighted by the smell; I was flattered that the chef trusted me to notice the difference between fresh and stale spices. Too many Indian restaurants insult their customers by assuming their palates can’t distinguish fennel from cinnamon, never mind just-bought from months-old. In this case, the initial hit of cardamom was not like an important part of the spice symphony, it was like a drum solo.
Other highlights: the nearly-Mediterranean taste of fenugreek leaves in the whole, tandoor-baked broccoli; the fresh mint and coriander in the Chicken Shampy; – described to us as “the kind of family curry we eat at home” – and the slightly sour-spiciness of the Highway Chicken curry, with its chunky sauce of tomatoes and peppers.
Why ‘Highway Chicken’? Looking around Punjabi Express, the most intriguing décor items are the chairs. They’re just stackable school chairs, but printed with signs and decorations off the long-distance trucks that traverse India and Pakistan. What’s the connection between curry and trucks?
The answer is the dhaba, a roadside restaurant in India or Pakistan. These dhabas were initially built alongside petrol stations to feed long-distance truck drivers – mainly of Punjabi descent – at any time of day or night.
A highway truck stop is probably the last thing you’d expect to inspire a new restaurant. But dhabas are not just any highway truck stops. The food is delicious. Punjabi drivers like three things: They like authentic Punjabi food, especially heavily-spiced or fried, they like it to taste homemade, and they like it cheap.
It’s not surprising that dhabas became popular with locals as well as the truckers passing through. It’s also not surprising that restaurants featuring dhaba-type menus have sprung up all over the world. As the Punjab Express menu says: “The dhaba moves wherever a Punjabi goes.”
Another thing the menu says: “No stir-in sauces and not swimming in oil.” This was nowhere more true than in my bowl of lamb rogan josht. Rogan josh, as it’s also spelt, should have a depth of warm spice flavor and a meaty richness. But lamb is a fatty meat and in some restaurants the gravy pools oil. The one at Punjab Express had a lightness to it; it tasted almost like a homemade spicy stew.
One criticism is that the meat chunks in all the curries I tried were on the dry side. It makes me happy that Punjab Express slow-cook the meat in the gravy or rice –allowing a cross-pollination of meat and spice flavours – but chicken should never be chalky, not even at the edges. I suspect it’s a timing issue. Presumably the curries are perfect at the start of the evening.
Punjab Express has been open less than a year. It was our waiter’s first night. He was discreetly supported by the owner and fellow staff members. There is an endearing atmosphere of eagerness here. It’s reflected in the service and also the food. Vegans, Banters and those with gluten intolerances are provided for here. All dishes on the menu can be made mild, medium or hot.
I’m considering moving my car in the direction of Punjab Express several times a month. It’s exactly what a Punjabi trucker would do.
Punjab Express 021 701 0504 or 021 701 0572; Westlake Business Park, Cape Town Open 11.30am-9.30pm. Take-aways and deliveries. R30 corkage for sit-down. See Facebook page for specials.