There's a lot to recommend the Star of India to a town full of Southerners.
For starters, there's the restaurant's owner, Sami Lal, who works the dining room like an Indian Bill Clinton — calling names and faces of people he met once, years ago, and generally making every person who walks through the front door feel like they're making a grand entrance at the ball.
And then there's the sopping.
Go through the lunch buffet line at Star of India and you'll come away with a plate full of puddling sauces — brown, cinnamon-infused beef curry, orange and green saag paneer, yellowy yellow squash — and a fork just isn't going to get the job done. Enter the basket of fresh-baked naan, sprinkled with fresh cilantro, that'll be waiting on the table for you when you sit back down — biscuit to the currified gravies. No need to leave a drop behind.
The West Little Rock restaurant is once again the winner in the Arkansas Times' Best Restaurant Best Ethnic category. Between the food and the owner, it's no surprise.
“I've been here since 1993 in the same location,” Lal said. “I have a tremendous reputation. People love me, and I love the people.”
Lal cooks Northern Indian food the way his mama taught him, honed by years cooking other ethnic foods as a chef in Germany. He was operating a restaurant in Dallas in the early 1990s when Indian immigrants visiting from Little Rock told him the city didn't have an Indian restaurant. For about a year, he said, he drove to Little Rock once a week to scout out a place to locate.
Star of India's menu is extensive — tiny print covering both sides of a legal-size sheet of paper — and includes chicken, beef, lamb, seafood and vegetable dishes cooked about a dozen ways each. It's a little overwhelming if you're not familiar with Indian cuisine and don't have any idea what you might like.
But the lunch buffet is much more friendly to newbies. There's generally about a dozen dishes to choose from — salads, meat dishes, vegetables — with friendly little hand-lettered signs above each one telling what it is. Our favorite reads “Yellow squash. You (heart) it,” with an arrow drawn through the heart. Yes, yes we do heart it.
And it hearts us back: Indian food is healthy, Lal says, and to prove it, he whips out a copy of a Wall Street Journal article about studies suggesting that turmeric — the spice that gives yellow curry powder its distinctive color — may help fight certain types of cancer.
Unless he's on the phone or otherwise occupied, Lal's booming voice greets every customer who comes in, and ushers everyone out with “Have a blessing day!” He invokes blessings quite a lot, actually — God has blessed him, the people of Arkansas have blessed him.
And the secret to his continued success?
“I cook fresh, plus I cook myself,” he said. “… This is cooking from my heart.”