You may not think about Indian food when you're considering Arkansas cuisine - but one Little Rock restarateur and his popular eatery have become part of the culinary lexicon in this state. Let me tell you about the magical place that is Star of India.
I travel extensively both inside and outside of Arkansas, and I’ve dined at both ends of the scale – five star restaurants and neighborhood barbecue joints, high-dollar steakhouses and low-rent taco stands. But when I come home, and I’m going out to eat just because I want to, I go to Star of India.
For more than 20 years, the enduring Indian restaurant on Shackleford Road has opened its doors to the masses, and opened the eyes of a lot of folks brought up on casseroles and hot dogs. For many, Star of India has been their first foray into a world of ethnic delights – and for many more, it’s become a regular haunt.
Sami Lal has more than 30 years of experience in creating epic curries, breads and dishes. Yet, though thousands of individuals have darkened his door, he’s still managed to remember just about every soul that’s sat at one of his tables. Any visit will be filled with cries of “how are you, brother?” or “it’s been a long time!” from the remarkable host. It’s not an act. Sami remembers you and me both, and often calls up details shared in conversations from decades past. He knows your friends, and don’t be surprised if you get a message from one who’s just dined there that Sami wants you back. After all, it’s been too long.
The menu is packed with curries, vindaloo, biriyani, kormas, the staples of northern Indian cuisine. Dinners in the evening are intimate, almost formal, always decadent. But locals know the best time to come is for one of Sami’s extraordinary lunch buffets, where one can dine on nearly a dozen dishes (sometimes more) for less than $10 a person. Fresh naan is always brought to the table, and one can cause oneself incredible pain from attempting to try every delight.
Those delights always include a few staples – the bright, fresh Kachumbar salad with its cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers and onion in a masala-graced vinaigrette; Star Special rice with bits of red rice;
Tandoori Chicken, bright red chicken pieces still on the bone, marinated in yogurt and cooked very hot in the tandoor; Lamb Kofte, pliant lamb meatballs in a mild yet dark red curry; delectable kheer with whole cardamom for desert.
The other dishes can range from the expected – Saag Paneer (spinach and cheese), hand-folded vegetable pakora full of potatoes and peas, a vegetable biriyani or Chicken Tikka Masala – to the more exotic. I love Sunday’s buffet with its
curried goat, still on the bone, perfect for sucking marrows. Dishes such as Egg Masala, Mushroom Matter and Eggplant Korma are common and so good. And there’s always plenty for my vegetarian friends to enjoy.
All through those
lunches, drinks are refreshed, plates whisked away and requests granted all with a friendly, semi-formal air. When you’re at Star of India, you are acutely aware how much the restaurant’s folks are glad to see you. That’s part of why there’s a pull to come back, time and time again. The good food’s just the icing on the cake.
So yes, that's it in a nutshell. Except it isn't. See, Star of India is my favorite restaurant. Anywhere. That's not a joke or a paid endorsement, it just is. I love the place. I love it so much, my friends threw me a baby shower there.
I'm not kidding.
Thing is, if I were to have such a shower today (which no, Hunter's my one-and-only), it could now be held in this brand new facility that's part of Star of India
Sami's expanded his operation into the space next door, creating an event hall for banquets and receptions and whatever you need. And it's just as lush and pretty as you'd expect.
Have I sold you on it yet? What if I were to mention that Sami even tries to make my birthdays special?
Star of India is open every day. The lunch buffet runs 11 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., and delivery is available. For more information, check out the website
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