4.5 out of 5 stars

I’ve heard many things about this restaurant, and I figured it was about time I tried some local Indian food from our very own Punjab Palace here at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and University Avenue, which is a five-minute drive from campus.

I drove into the plaza and noticed that the area was dirty in general; homeless (or homeless-looking) people circled the block and although they minded their own business, I personally wouldn’t want to be here at night. Punjab Palace was conveniently located next to Chow King and Little Caesars, so it wasn’t difficult to locate and they had a lunch buffet deal for only $8.99 (with tax: $9.65), which was already enough to capture my attention.

 A mild scent of spices filled the air and enveloped us as we walked to our table. The entire room was dimly lit with most of the light coming from the Indian music videos that were playing on the overhead TVs and calm chatter filled the space. It wasn’t a very warm atmosphere and I must say that the waiter didn’t look very pleased with our arrival. Without so much as a greeting, he proceeded to pour water and ignore us for the rest of our stay except to question my friend about his camera; but most of the customers seemed to keep to themselves anyway.

We got up to pick our first round of food and eagerly approached the buffet table full of aromatic red-orange colored foods. They had chicken tandoori (roasted chicken in spices), vegetable samosas (veggies wrapped in a crispy skin), chicken pakora (spiced chicken fritters), jeera rice and multiple types of masalas (chicken, fish or mushroom), which all looked a little unappetizing, but looks can deceive, right? As a complete newbie when it comes to Indian cuisine with literally no expectations, I grabbed a little bit of everything and even added some tamarind sauce and mint sauce.

 I was pretty excited to discover that there was a complimentary basket of fresh garlic naan waiting for me at my table already, and that’s definitely a plus for me. (Who doesn’t like free bread?) The naan resembled a folded tortilla and was light in flavor, thicker and a lot chewier than a tortilla, so overall it was a delicious appetizer when eaten hot.

The mint and tamarind sauces were a little unusual to me and, despite my efforts to peek at other customers to get a feel for what to eat it with, I sat down and decided to just try the sauces for myself. Since the mint was refreshing while the tamarind was more flavorful and salty, this, to me, was a little weird. But I dipped my not-so-crispy chicken pakora into the sauces and regardless of the chicken pakora lacking on crunch, I must confess that the entirety was impressively on point.

I glanced around the room for a brief moment and noticed that the upholstery had Chinese characters while the giant painting of a horse had Chinese words — interesting, but would only be fitting if this place were a Chinese restaurant. Curiously, the only aspects of obviously Indian culture present aside from the music videos were the bottles of Taj Mahal-brand alcohol on top of the buffet tables and the elaborate curtains surrounding the walls, so a renovation might be needed.

Aside from the strange interior, the chicken tikka masala with jeera rice was amazing! The richness of the spices and the creaminess of the flavor hit me all at once and almost left me speechless. The chicken tandoori was also well seasoned and had the right tenderness of a well-baked chicken — moist, a little spicy and a great experience altogether. In contrast, the vegetable samosa I had wasn’t as amazing since it just tasted like a regular egg roll to me and the vegetable pakora was nothing significant either.

After a successful main course, we headed back to the buffet tables to scour for some dessert. I was drawn to the kheer, which was rice pudding with nuts, and proceeded to scoop a hearty amount into my bowl. There was also gulab jamun, which was an Indian milk cheese ball and carrot pudding that I didn’t try since I wasn’t a fan of carrot.

“I have to warn you, it’s pretty sweet! I don’t know if you’ll finish one since I couldn’t,” exclaimed fifth-year student Richard Lin as I scooped a cheese ball into my bowl. I took one bite and it reminded me of a moist donut hole soaked in syrup for a couple of hours — it was really tasty initially, but overpowering in the end, so sadly, Richard was right. I enjoyed every bit of my rice pudding, however, and it was the perfectly sweet ending to my meal.

Overall, the price for the lunch buffet is well worth it and I will definitely be back for that chicken tikka masala and chicken tandoori. I strongly recommend Punjab Palace for lunch if you’re especially hungry and want to take advantage of the buffet style, especially since Indian food isn’t common in this area.