Bring patience and an appetite to Little India Café

Just imagine what it would be like if you had a good friend who was Indian, and he invited you over for dinner while his grandmother was visiting from Mumbai. If you enjoyed Indian food at all, much less loved it as much as I do, you would surely look forward to these authentic goodies with great anticipation.

Now put your imagination into reality mode: You get there and find the house filled with amazing aromas, and there’s some truly delicious stuff on the table. But you might also discover that visiting grandmothers don’t necessarily give you white-tablecloth service. You sit at the kitchen table, you eat what you’re given, and if she’s in a cranky mood, she might glare at you and mutter in a language you don’t understand … until she warms up, breaks out in smiles and makes you warmly welcome.

Let’s just say that Little India Café is kind of like that, too. So small and out of the way in Hikes Point that it’s easy to miss, Little India doesn’t always get a mention when foodies recite our local roster of Indian eateries.

To tell you the truth, it is so well hidden — you have to hang a right at the McMahan Plaza Kroger and drive down past Feeder’s Supply to find it tucked into the shopping center’s far corner — that when I first checked it out early in 2010, I thought I had better review it in a hurry, while it lasted.

But it seems to have come to stay, making its mark among serious Indian food aficionados, who whisper its name like a well-kept secret, and among those who simply love the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $7.95.

Service can be unpredictable — think of your friend’s busy Indian grandmother bustling about, trying to cook and talk and get the table set, straightening the pictures and sweeping a corner of the floor and not always keeping up — but it’s well-intended. And as long as you keep an eye on the buffet and jump to grab the goods when they’re fresh and hot, you really can’t go wrong with anything you choose from the noonday spread.

Which is not to imply that the evening menu isn’t a worthy choice, too. With the buffet put away for the evening, a good, regionally diverse Indian menu comes into play, including southern Indian light fare (masala dosa for $7.89, and all the familiar accompaniments), tandoori dishes and kebabs ($7.95 to $13.95 depending on your choice of chicken, fish, beef or mutton/goat), a list of Indian vegetarian standards ($8.95-$10.95) and, billed as the restaurant’s specialty, Hyderabadi-style biryani, the classic rice-plus-everything dish of central India that you might call the subcontinent’s answer to paella.

We dropped in for lunch recently and took full advantage of the buffet, which is neatly lined up with meatful options on the right and veggie delights on the left, offering four or five selections in each category plus light, perfectly cooked basmati rice and toasty naan flatbreads. A separate buffet adds three or four chutneys (watch the cool-looking green chutney, which will actually light your fire), cooling cucumber-and-yogurt raita, salad fixins, and a couple of exotic Indian desserts.

We loaded our plates, reloaded them, and went back again, starting from a base of aromatic, ultra-long-grain basmati and tender, perfectly charred naan, and piling on tandoori chicken, spicy red highlighted with charcoal black; Punjabi Bajji, a warm vegetable stew in a pale orange sauce that’s very much like chicken tikka masala without the bird; and Bendi Bharta, a thick, long-cooked okra curry that might just persuade you to like this much maligned tropical veggie after all. Butter chicken featured tender chunks of long-simmered, boneless meat in a reddish-orange sauce with plenty of endorphin-inducing heat, and chana masala elevated simple chickpeas and onions into a warming curry. There was more, I’m pretty sure, but at some point it all began to merge into a warm buzz like a cosmic “Ommmmmm.”

Lunch for two, with yogurt lassi drinks ($1.95) to cool the fire, came to $20.99, plus $4 for the tip jar.

Little India Café
3099 Breckenridge Lane, Suite 101
Rating: 82