Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Week (Almost) in India, New Jersey

Want to know how to stay in New York for four nights for less than the price of one night in a hotel? The answer is, stay in New Jersey. Specifically, stay in a crazy Indian-run hotel called the Haiban Inn on Newark Avenue in Jersey City, the heart of that town's Little India. And if you don't mind the room being shaken until all hours by drumming and singing and dancing, book your time in the middle of the nine-day annual religious festival known as Navratri. You won't get much sleep, but on the up-side, a lot of the restaurants are open til 5am.

And you'll want to eat at the restaurants, trust me.

I arrived on Thursday, after a chaotic series of events that made it so it took me almost as long to get from JFK to the hotel as it did for me to get from Austin to JFK. Some of it was my fault: at one point I was steps from the hotel, mis-read the street numbers, turned around, and walked a mile, with my computer bag and my suitcase. But here's the point: at least I got there.

The Haiban isn't going to make anybody's list of luxury hotels, even in Jersey City. In fact, it's barely a hotel. The current owners bought it ten months ago, rid the property of its bedbugs, and started renting out rooms with an eye towards long-stay Indian guests in town to do short gigs in the tech sector. For around a hundred bucks, I got a big room with a bed, another room with a sink, a fridge and a microwave, and a bathroom. No furniture except for a little chair that looked sad that the rest of the dinette set had walked off and left it, no glass to wash your mouth out after brushing your teeth, no desk at which to set up your computer (the wi-fi was great), and nothing much else. The walls are paper-thin and there's a chance the businessman in the next room is using Skype in the wee hours to make a deal. In the morning, basic breakfast is provided: tea, bread to toast, cereal. The people running the place are extremely friendly. And you can't beat the location:

These are just random grabs of the block of Newark Ave., a long street that starts downtown and winds its way until just past Little India. You will notice the huge number of restaurants. We will return to this, never fear. What's not a restaurant is probably a shop selling saris, a money-transfer operation, or a superette or meat market. I would have gone nuts in the superettes were it not for the fact that I have two well-stocked Indian markets right near my place in Austin. Not even they sell curry leaf (neem) plants, though. Gotta get me some of that.

Of course, my never-ending quest for great Indian food, and particularly south Indian food, would bring me to stay in a place like this, but there was another factor as well: PATH. This is a small subway system that connects places like Newark, Hoboken, and Jersey City with Manhattan. Really: in very little time at all, I was able to walk to the Journal Square PATH station and, with a regular New York City Metro Card, ride as far as a block from Penn Station. This proved to be amazingly convenient, and, in terms of getting where I needed to go, not much different than staying at a non-midtown hotel in Manhattan. Except for the price.

And Navratri. I got in about 10pm, thanks to the screwups, and heard the music coming from the parking lot across the street. The enthusiastic young man at the hotel desk told me it was the most important festival of the year, nine nights long, and many Hindus spent the entire nine nights praying, not bothering to sleep. I figured that was okay as long as they let me sleep. In fact, it appears to be a festival that's been celebrated since prehistoric times, as the excellent Wikipedia article hints. I was unaware of Navratri before this trip, but the whole world's currently aware of it as a result of the Indian Prime Minister's announcement that he's happy to have dinner at the White House with the Obamas, but he won't eat. It's also a fast, you see.

Well, I didn't want to fast, so I headed up the street to a promising-looking place called Deccan Spice with over-the-top encomia from the Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsma in the window. It was a very strange, but wonderful, experience. I was with a friend from Malaysia who'd, unfortunately, just eaten. (Well, you can't expect people to wait for you when they're starving and you're two hours late). Overwhelmed by the menu, I ordered something called Special Pakora to start. This was described as "paneer and cashew mixed with spices and gram flour and deep fried." We've all had pakoras: they're bits of vegetable coated in spiced chickpea (British: gram) flour (besan) and deep fried, so I figured this would be hunks of paneer, that amazing chewy Indian cheese, treated similarly. What I got was a big plate of crunchy tidbits, a bit like a bar snack for the beer they naturally don't serve here. (I had a Limca, an allegedly lime-flavored soft drink made by Coca Cola India which contains no juice at all, just some kind of unspecified "acid," and tastes sort of like lime-scented disinfectant. I have to order Limca once a decade to remind myself how little I like it). It was, its form notwithstanding, delicious, and I had to watch myself because I am all too aware how besan expands. Next up was the house specialty, Natu Kodi Vepudu, described as "spicy country chicken cooked with poppy seeds, coconut and curry leaves," which sounded astounding. It was. It was also not boneless. My Malaysian friend said there's a very similar-tasting dish back home, also not boneless. You're supposed to suck the marrow, crunch the cartilage, and, of course, eat the meat. The spice mixture was out of this world, and I'm going to go looking for it so I can treat some boneless chicken this way. As it was, my current dentition found it challenging, especially when a bone shard got under my denture and found its way to where my teeth had been extracted. I asked the waiter if I could have some rice on the side. He said, and I quote, "No."

Bizarrely enough, this didn't keep me from returning two nights later. I went with a Jersey Citizen of my acquaintance who'd never eaten in Little India, but who is somewhat spice-averse, which is okay because I suspect the Deccans are all too willing to blast you out if appropriate. For appetizers, she ordered samosas and I ordered chilli paneer. Her samosas were definitely southern Indian style (the restaurant advertises itself as Hyderabadi) and the filling, although it contained potatoes and peas, also contained other stuff that made it sublime. No sticky sweet chutney accompanied them, because really, nothing else was needed. For a main course, she got charminar ka murgh, "boneless chicken cooked in spinach gravy and spices," and I got a goat curry from a new state that had split off of Hyderabad and isn't listed either on the takeout menu I lifted or on line. The goat wasn't boneless, either, which was okay, because I'm used to Jamaican goat curry, which isn't boneless, either. It was pretty good, although, again, dentally challenging for me. My friend lucked out with her chicken: there was far more than spinach in that thick green sauce, including mint and fenugreek and cilantro. I do have one of those little Indian cookbooks back in Texas that claims to be Hyderabadi, and I'm going to look for it. Oh: how was my chilli paneer? No idea. It never came, despite two reminders to the waiter. Finally the manager showed up and my friend allowed as how the white rice she'd ordered hadn't come, either. That, at least, was produced post-haste.

In sum, I suspect that repeated visits to Deccan Spice would reveal a bunch of superb Indian cuisine of the sort I, and probably most gringos, have never had. There would be service problems, and if you order the "goat fry" you'd have to remember it's goat brains you're eating there. They're opening various new locations, and if they'd like a tip on a strip-mall property just down from an Indian grocery on William Cannon Boulevard in Austin, they should contact me. I promise to deliver customers if they promise to deliver the full order.

(Deccan Spice, 771 Newark Ave. Jersey City, NJ, 201-604-1772. www.deccan-spice.com. Open 11am-1am Mon-Thu, Sun, 11am-5am Fri & Sat. Other locations, check website).

* * *

The next day, not having had enough, I went to a place across the street and around the corner from the hotel for "pure vegetarian" food. Sapthagiri is another burgeoning empire that can have that space down from Man Prasand Grocery if Deccan Spice doesn't want it. It was lunchtime and I was, again, hungry, and this place's menu had a bewildering number of items on it. It also had a rabbinical certificate declaring the food Kosher. It serves both northern and southern Indian vegetarian stuff, but I was going to stick to the south, since that's less familiar and, if you make it at home, more labor-intensive. 

I started out with rasam idly, two little puffs of rice flour left to ferment and rise overnight and then steamed, then soaked in that deceptively fiery thin lentil soup called rasam (which I have made, and loved: it's not hard). I don't have an idly maker, though, so here it is:

Prepare to sweat, gringo
The coconut raita, the white stuff, was exquisite. And those little puffs kept puffing when they got inside. 

Which made my next choice a little prolematic: a dosa. Some day someone will teach me how to eat one of these mammoth pancakes, which are folded like a crepe over a filling that only makes a bit of a bump in the overall dish. Mine was a Mysore masala dosa, whose description on the menu says that it's "spread with spicy home made sauce and filled with mash of potato & onion and green peas and cashew nuts." I attacked this so fast I didn't have time to photograph it until I pulled up with the certain knowledge that a stomach ache awaited me if I ate another phenomenal forkful:

Coconut raita, amazing rasam, three killer chutneys and that filling...
I kind of ripped open the dosa to show off that filling. Man oh man. 

That did me for the day, despite a trip into Manhattan and back and very good intentions to visit one of the biryani joints that was open late. But I noticed that Sapthagiri offered a breakast buffet on Saturdays and Sundays. My Malaysian friend was all ears at that -- and stomach, too. Saturday morning we were there:

Umm, let's see, clockwise from noon, fried things that had gone cold, some farina dish with onions and I think kalunji (nigella) seeds and other stuff, a cup of rasam, some fried parathas, a cup of coconut chutney, a close relative of that dosa filling, a blob of chutney, a blob of ginger chutney, two idlys and in the center more chutney. No, not real helpful. Just go get some on the weekend. 
There was excellent masala tea and less excellent masala Nescafé. This is the way to start the day, boys and girls! 

(Sapthagari, 804 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ, 201-533-8400, open seven days 11am to 10pm. Another location in Franklin Park, NJ).

* * *

There are many, many other restaurants on the block. I want to try one of the biryani joints, myself, specialists in what might be termed South Indian jambalayas, which can be fiendishly difficult to make at home, or not, depending on how complex the recipe you're making is. (I once made one with the rice in three layers, orange, white, and green, the colors of the Indian flag, each layer with different stuff in it. I almost died before I got it on the table, but, unbelievably, it was amazing. I'm not sure where the recipe is and am disinclined to go looking for it). Up the side-street from Sapthagari is an egg-based Indian restaurant, probably the only one in the US. I need to check that out; eggs aren't much eaten in India, from what I can tell. Another Jersey Citizen tells me that Dosa Hut is good, while another remembers going there -- or was it Dosa House down the street? -- and getting a dosa with a frozen center due to bad microwave technique. There are a couple of places obviously catering to a younger crowd with names like Chutney's that deserve a visit. Am I going to check back in to the Haiban when I get back on Monday so I can continue to investigate? Stay tuned. 

* * *

Of course, each night starting about 8 there was dancing in the streets, big ring dances with men and women and loud live music, although the shenai and santur and sitar and other instruments were all synth presets played by one guy. There were, however, several drum kits to keep people shaking. There was a shrine in the parking lot, one by the stage, and another down the street in the front of a travel agency. 

The main shrine

The travel agency shrine
People started dancing about 8, but things went on, with various vocalists, one of whom was a boy about 4 years old (who kept going flat, as kids do) singing pop-ghazal until about 1:30. 

Live music! Except for the presets. (Kid not shown: he came up later).

Only gives a hint of the chaos. Later: roman candles. 
Even on Thursday and Sunday, when there was no band, recorded music blared out. I was, amazingly, able to fall asleep to it, but unless you're going to celebrate, this might be a nine-day window to not stay in Little India. Of course, from Manhattan, it's the cost of one ride on your Metro Card, and the food won't break your budget at all. 

I'm writing this in a considerably different hotel in Montreal, and the second chapter of this adventure has started. I will not be eating Indian food here, although I understand it's on offer...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Minor Annoyance

I was mooching around the Internet the other day, bored and between work duties and kind of desultorily researching my upcoming vacation without enough information or money to actually do anything about it, when I picked up a kind of hint that my iPhone and iPad had something on them that I didn't want there. And sure enough, they did.

On the one hand, pretty nifty graphics. On the other hand, I didn't ask for this. Nor, to be honest, would I have.

In case you've been asleep this week, or in case you use iTunes as little as I do these days (ie, never, now that I no longer have neighbors who'll bust me for playing music through speakers after 10pm), if you have an Apple device, you've got it, too. I have no idea what your reaction will be, but I got mad.

A bit of history is in order here. Back in 1968, I started to write record reviews for Rolling Stone. In order to make sure I could keep in touch with what the labels were putting out, their record review editor, Greil Marcus, called some record labels and I got put on their mailing lists for pop music. Stuff began to appear in my mailbox before it appeared in my college bookstore's record section, which was a big outlet for testing new releases. I got Cream's Wheels of Fire from Atlantic, and Waiting For the Electrician Or Someone Like Him, by the Firesign Theater. This was memorable because it was a record that, from its cover, I'd never have bought, and covers were about all anyone had to go on back then. One night, I put it on and a whole new world opened to me: comedy made with all the resources of the modern recording studio, just like a new Beatles album or something.

I got used to free albums pretty quickly. Arguments that people who got free albums were more inclined to like them than if they'd paid for them were hogwash: with $4.98 invested in a record, you had $4.98 worth of reasons to consider that a good investment. I had no investment in a free piece of plastic, and if it knocked me out, all to the good. And it kept me abreast of what proved to be an oncoming tide of music: it seems quaint nowadays, but it was once possible to keep up with pretty much every album that came out. Or every rock album, at any rate, and more and more they were becoming the majority of what was released.

Many times I've told the story of what I don't want to call a tipping point: Rolling Stone had assigned me the new Beatles album, Abbey Road, for review. Weird as it seems, there were copies all over the country in warehouses, waiting for the release date a couple of weeks later. A promo man in Cincinnati who worked in one of those warehouses was asked to hand-deliver my copy. His main gig was for Elektra Records, though, so he brought that month's Elektra stuff with him, too: albums by the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, Ars Nova, Rhinoceros, Wild Thing, and one the guy candidly told me was awful, so awful he drew on the cover. "These guys are morons," he said. "I have no idea why we signed them." They were the Stooges.

However, let us not forget Wild Thing.
It was like the past (the Beatles audibly falling apart), the present (a lot of pretension, inept rock masquerading as art), and the future (The Stooges was the only album in the pile that got to me viscerally, and I reviewed it, too, for Rolling Stone) all in one neat pile of vinyl.

The great thing about free records is that, once they started flowing in and once some of them proved to be duds, you could almost always find someone to give you a buck or two for them. With what writing about them would turn out to pay, this was a valuable asset.

Of course, this was physical product. I could hold it in my hand, hand it to you to hold, mail it to a friend, stack it in the corner. True, I hadn't specifically asked for most of it, but some of it I was glad to have. It took up an awful lot of room, but that was no big thing. (Well, until I had to move, at least).

The U2 situation is completely different, and needs to be addressed in ways I don't see it being addressed. Most of what I've seen has been "Man, I don't want an album by these guys because they suck!" type of thing, or else "Hey, I played it and liked it a lot!"

That's not the issue.

First, it's not taking up space on your device. What you've been given is the opportunity to download the album for free until October 13. I get links like that every day, since there are still publicists out there who think I'm interested in contemporary rock music, which I'm not. But I have to take the action to click on the link, deliver the product to my desktop, and then integrate it with my iTunes if I so see fit. I think that's fair.

What's not fair is deceptively placing that link on my device without my consent. I can (and do) ignore those links in the press releases. I can't ignore the existence of something I'd never ever want on my device. And I wonder how many people innocently click on the link and download this album, just out of curiosity. Apple, one reads, spent $100 million for the rights to do this, a nice payday for the corporation that is U2. How many people did this? It's important to know: an industry source I trust claims that their last album was downloaded 22,000 times. Yup: no missing zeroes there. Twenty-two thousand. No doubt the people who downloaded it paid for it, and no doubt some percentage of them played it for a while, decided they could live without it (or most of it) and deleted it (or most of it) from their devices. I'm sure that out of the majority of consumers who bought the album as physical product some traded theirs for something else, sold them at garage sales, and the like. In all cases, this is the consumer's right: you made the choice to own the music and you make the choice to do what you will with it, even something technically illegal. Or returning it to the electronic chaos.

The economics of giving music away gives me a headache, and I don't want to discuss it. The blitherers who talk about how musicians should make their money with live appearances ought to do a four-month tour of the U.S. and Canada in an Econoline van and get back to me. Extra points if you're over 45. And yes, someone sent me that article about Joe Ely and his long-standing love affair with Apple Computers (ever heard his album Hi Res?), and no, much as I love Joe, I wouldn't have been any happier if it had been his new album that was forcibly inserted on my devices. (I would, however, have been very happy for him and Sharon if they managed to get $100 million out of Apple. Hell, Sharon's never going to make that much from her posole, good as it is).

What this is about goes to the core of owning these devices in the first place. We give certain entities -- Apple Computer, most importantly -- access to them so that they can make them better: Apple constantly provides updates to the operating system, for instance, that result in better functioning and stronger security. They improve (or, well, let's just say for the sake of argument they're improvements) the various applications like Mail and Safari that come with the computers and let us know they're available. We can choose not to upgrade, and sometimes that's the right choice. What Apple is not doing is slapping a copy of Angry Birds, for instance, on our devices, giving us trial e-subscriptions to Us magazine. Some of us choose not to put games on our devices. Some of us don't care about the "content" in Us.

We all have the choice to configure our devices as we wish, which is how it should be. We choose what software to put on them, what content. The autonomy this technological revolution we're living through is, in fact, liberating, even when it doesn't seem that way at the hands of some political and religious organizations. But those entities aren't forcing themselves on us. U2 is.

I have been denied a choice. Yes, it seems easy enough to rid your device of this stupid thing, yet I scrupulously followed the instructions for erasing it from my devicesyesterday and as of a minute ago, it's still on all three -- computer, iPhone, iPad. I don't like the precedent. I don't like U2, either, but that's not what this is about.

Apple should be ashamed of itself and it should apologize for this breach of privacy.

But of course it won't be, and it won't. Welcome to the oligarchy, consumer tool.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Modest Disappointments

One of the books I discovered when I started to unpack my stuff from storage was T. R. Fehrenbach's classic history of Texas, Lone Star. I was happy to find it: after all these years, perhaps it was time to dive into what most people say is the standard history of this state.

It's a tough slog for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the narrative lurches around out of sequence for much of the book, and several long passages seem to be papers Fehrenbach presented just inserted into the book, making the idea of a flow ridiculous. It could also use way more maps than it has. Still, given the time it was written and the place it was written about, Lone Star is remarkable in a number of ways. Fehrenbach's concept of the "races" of Texas (not the word I'd use) posits that the Anglos who came here came directly from the frontier of Tennessee and Kentucky, and their ancestors had bypassed the civilizing influence of the Enlightenment thinking that was developing in New England and Virginia. They were no to much anti-intellectual as, well, a-intellectual. This put them at odds with the Europeans who moved here, and with the Mexicans who were already here. He makes the black experience sound like hell on earth, even compared to other parts of the U.S. The female experience he doesn't consider at all.

I bring this up not to mock a classic work or pretend that I know better than he (although I certainly would have added and subtracted information were it my book, and if I had the knowledge), but to give some context to what I did last Thursday. The Bullock State History Museum had a travelling show called 1968 that I wanted to see, as did my pal GB, and she, having worked as a consultant on another special show there, had a contact, so she called and got us free entry and a parking pass.

The 1969 show was perplexing, taking up very little space, and cramming stuff into it in a rather claustrophobic way. The artifacts on display -- weird to think of a year from your young adulthood as possessing "artifacts" -- were all over the map. Some of the wacky, zippy furniture and other design elements may have been available for purchase, but few bought them because they looked as ephemeral as they turned out to be. Instant museum pieces, I guess. The war in Vietnam was very well covered, and there was most of a Huey helicopter taking up part of the space, as was part of a space capsule in which astronauts had ridden. The pop culture items were well-chosen (although the dorm room with the dope in one of the desk drawers could have used with a curator who knew how to roll a joint), and the use of video was excellent: short, informative pieces you could watch and then go. The Presidential election had the requisite number of campaign buttons and an oddly moving display, down near the floor, of a bunch of china from the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, where RFK was assassinated.

But it was tiny, and before long we were through. "Want to look at the rest of the museum?" GB asked, and, well, of course I did. So off we went.

Lack of space isn't a problem at the Bullock: its cavernous interior recalls the rotunda of the state capitol building, perhaps intentionally. It has an IMAX theater, a conference center, a restaurant, a concert hall, and three floors of exhibits. Which is where Fehrenbach came in handy. The ground floor seems empty, despite a good reproduction of a "dog run" house of the sort early settlers built (I thought I knew what one looked like, but Fehrenbach's description confused me). There's just not much Stuff, and after 20 years in Europe, I'm used to museums with Stuff galore. What it does have, in enormous quantity, though, is text. Text on the walls, text in documents, framed next to more text. But having read the book, this made sense: the Spanish had artifacts, but the Apaches, the dominant Indian tribe in Texas, had none becauses they had no culture, at least not in the way we'd define it. They made no art except to decorate weapons of war, and had no settlements. (Reading Fehrenbach, it seems like a miracle that they survived into the 19th Century, having no technology other than superb horsemanship skills, and, later, some marksmanship with captured rifles; it was like the Mongol hordes surviving into early modern times). As for the early Anglos, their goods were very modest, and the display that made the point that the Colt revolver had won the war against the Apaches was dull: old rusted guns tend to look very much alike, and a display of a couple of disassembled Colts, showing the original model and the model made after the Texas Rangers bailed Colt out of bankruptcy by ordering a thousand or so guns made from their suggestions would have been very welcome.

I started reading the texts, but soon got fatigued by them. GB, for her part, wanted to continue upstairs, so we ascended the staircase to the 19th century, where there was a bit more Stuff. There, the Civil War awaited us, confusing as all get-out, although the video showing comments from Texans' writings during the period had its moments. It, however, showed one of the museum's big problems. In trying to be fair to the Texas experience of Mexicans, women, and blacks, the exhibits often spend time on matters that are either trivial (some of the women's stuff) or odd (you cannot sugar-coat the black experience in Texas, which was right up there with Mississippi as one of the worst places to be a slave -- or, starting a short time after Emancipation, a free black -- and there are very few positive role models among black Texans during this period).

We drifted on, surrounded by text, which was often in black letters against a brown background, and some of that in reduced light to preserve documents and artifacts. GB complained that representative costumes would have been a good idea, there not being any before the 1920s, which I hadn't noticed, but was a good observation. I suggested that in a climate like Texas', preserving clothing against decay for a century or more might have been impossible, but more likely, it was the people themselves who didn't see the point of saving anything. Life was hard enough, after all. When the costumes appeared, they were in one of the ingenious displays that were behind a scrim, with the lighting changing to make it more or less opaque. The change, however, was fairly quick and you couldn't really get a good look at the contents of the window until the next cycle.

By the time we got to the third, and top, floor, I was frankly bored. There was an Exxon-sponsored display about the oil business, which saved Texas when the cattle boom faded, a nice old neon sign from an old movie house called the Texas, some cool stuff from NASA, a video about Texas today starring my old friend Ray Benson (who is, as he'll tell you, a nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia), and, as you exited that room, a small adjunct to the 1968 show called The Years That Made Texas Weird, which was no such thing, but, instead, a tribute to a number of the great local poster artists with a small display of each one's work.

We descended the staircase into the rotunda, checked out the gift shop (filled with stuff you'd want to take home to New York or Illinois), and walked outside where, to our amazement, a thin rain was blowing in. It was, in context, the high point of the afternoon.

* * *

"Hey," said the voice on the phone last night. "Got dinner plans? Want to go get noodles with us?" It was Andrew, whose suggestions on where to get great food around Austin had never let me down, starting with, years ago, a phô place that's now in my neighborhod. It was late afternoon, so I suggested we wait a bit, and he agreed, saying he was going to grill one of his kids about where to go. This son lives up north, where a lot of the Chinese and Vietnamese places are. 

"How about Chicken Lollypop?" he asked a couple of hours later. Um, what? "Noah says it's great and he's been there a lot. It's Indian food." Okay, sure. As I have learned to do, I called up its website, which is why I know it's misspelled. Also how I knew that I had no idea what was ahead, because the menu is too small to read. But you couldn't miss those three words: "INDIAN CHINESE CUISINE."

Now, I knew that fusion was the new thing. I also know that my favorite Austin South Indian vegetarian restaurant has an "Indo-Chinese" section on their menu that I always ignore. I've also seen "Szechuan sauce" in jars at my local Indian grocery store. So who knew what this was? 

The surprises didn't end there. We drove up to a strip mall. A huge convenience store shared space with a hospice. Fortunately, we were headed to the convenience store, in the back of which was a window and a menu on the wall. As it developed most people did, we hung out in front of the menu trying to make sense out of it. There were "House Signature Delights," which featured the eponymous Lollypop, spinach, and Bombay Potatoes. There were sandwiches, soups, and Naan wraps, all of which featured stuff cooked in "Shezwan" sauce. For entrees, you can get chicken, paneer (a kind of Indian cheese that doesn't melt when cooked) or shrimp, as either chili, garlic, ginger, Shezwan, Manchurian, or sweet and sour. Then there are many kinds of fried rice, more or less along the lines of the entrees, a spinach fried rice, triple Shezwan fried rice chicken or shrimp, which features "Yummy in a Separate Bowl," pav bhaji (vegetables, something called Amul butter, and pav, which appears to be a tomato concoction), and naan, which we were told by some diners we shouldn't miss. We ordered the Lollypop (of course), the spinach appetizer, spinach fried rice, garlic paneer and chili chicken. 

We then wandered the convenience store looking for drinks. It was immense. There was a decent selection of craft beers, and all manner of industrial wines, some weird alcoholic jellies, and stubby little bottles of Dublin Dr. Pepper, made in a holdout bottling plant in Dublin, Texas, that refuses to use high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener. I grabbed one in solidarity: it is Labor Day Weekend, after all. Andrew got a beer, then had to put it back: they don't have a license to let you drink it. 

The food comes in round foil containers like you use for take-out. The Lollypop (four to an order) are like chicken wings: the drumlet from the wing, cut in such a way that you can jam the meat down on the bone, leaving the bone to hold it by, marinated, then probably baked. They were delicious. But, as it developed, hardly a harbinger of things to come. The spinach appetizer was also delicious and pretty copious, sauteed, the menu said, with herbs, some of which were sour. I never did figure it out, partially because it vanished so quickly. The chili chicken was in a bright red sauce with lots of vegetables. The red was, as Andrew noted, a color not found in nature, and the increasingly gelid texture of the sauce belied the presence of that ubiquitous Chinese ingredient cornstarch. For all its flamboyance, it didn't have a hell of a lot of flavor. The sauce on the garlic paneer was lightly garlicky, with herbs and vegetables in the mix, also cornstarched to within an inch of its life. The spinach fried rice, though, was lovely: covered by a thin egg pancake, the rice and spinach was complex, savory, and compulsively edible, although that might have been because the other entrees were so bad and we were hungry. The naan was a disc of cooked flour, unlike any naan I have ever had, or, I hope, ever will. 

I have no idea where this cuisine was dreamed up, although I note that the to-go menu amplifies the provenance by saying "INDIAN CHINESE CUISINE MUMBAI STYLE," and I do regret the fact that in all the confusion we neglected to order a "Shezwan" dish. The man behind the window was upbeat and friendly and very concerned that we were enjoying ourselves. Twice, he noted that the spinach was local, supplied by a man in Buda, and that he went through five pounds of it a day. On the way out, the guy behind the main counter said that they were thinking of opening a place in South Austin, or perhaps downtown. I might go back and have some different stuff if so, but this was one of the most bizarre dining experiences (talking about the food, not Mr. and Mrs. Andrew) I've had in a long, long while. 

Chicken Lollypop, 1005 E. Braker Lane, Austin, 78753, 512-412-1260 or 512-909-9826 for takeout. 
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