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If Chinatown ever really does fade away, the loss felt by most observers won’t reflect their deep affection for utilitarian dining spaces and crackly-skinned Peking duck. The hurt will come in anticipating the ugly shades of newness that everyone assumes will displace the scrappy traditionalism that’s defined our Chinatown, the forgotten Chinatown, the one that never gets any national props. Sure, on the one hand you may have MSG-addled lo mein from a steam table, but on the other hand, what? Hooters?
Mehak isn’t anything like one of the newfangled Chinatown restaurants doomsayers have been predicting. It’s not big. It contains no televisions, and its walls are free of sports memorabilia. It’s not part of a national chain. It’s not even Chinese.
Mehak is an offshoot of a beloved-by-a-few Falls Church restaurant specializing in Indian food, and it’s snuggled into Chinatown as though it had been there since the neighborhood’s christening. The sliver of a dining room offers more low-lit romance than many nearby, and the restaurant’s wait staff is usually on top of pappadam crumbs soon after they crash on the white linen tablecloths. Yet, new as it is, Mehak is rickety, like so many ethnic restaurants that get priced out of the of-the-moment sweepstakes. One noon, during a busy lunch, a host hands me a stack of the restaurant’s business cards. They’re to be used as an anchor to steady my wobbly table. If Chinatown lasts forever, Mehak could, too. And, give or take a few rug cleanings, it will probably look the same then as it does now.
Mehak is what it is, making the subtle surprises of its food hit like sudden tailwinds. Neither the meat nor the vegetable samosa is particularly thrilling—in fact, both require a little chutney pick-me-up—but they are straight-from-the-heat crisp, a state that enlivens many of their oil-sizzled cousins. Mehak’s chicken pakora offers juicy meat, spicy coating, and tempura lightness—chicken fingers they are not. I doubt it’s deliberate, but we get aloo tikki two ways. On one visit, the potato patties are a vehicle for a deep, sharp chutney. The next time, a single portion is served plain on an appetizer platter. I forget to bitch after discovering what crunchy-to-fluffy fun that spicy potato is in the mouth. The experience is enough to excuse stale pappadam and coriander chutney that’s only a touch less bland than plain yogurt.
If Mehak’s menu seems about as exciting a read as the back of a toothpaste tube, try to blot out all of those overhyped fusion meals from your past and remember that good curry and vindaloo can send you reeling today just as they did the first time you tried them. Certainly, the kitchen is as capable of bringing you down as it is at taking you higher; undercooked dal and overcooked naan are enough to turn one potentially great meal into one we’d rather
But whether the flubs are the result of bad habits or an unlucky streak, I’d say they’re aberrations. The tandoor baked meats are photo-ready—the chicken’s blistered and shock-red, and the shrimp are sturdy and plump, each cooked just until the shell starts to go brittle and smoke’s flavored the flesh. The golden coat of spices clinging to a dish of soft-not-mushy cauliflower and potatoes is complex and kicky—let the stuff sit on your lips too long and they’ll start to sting. Fish curry is similarly confounding, but in a bad way—a handful of onions and healthy dose of gravy, and the salmon still tastes skunky. By comparison, the lamb curry is revelatory; the meat’s been luxuriating for so long in all that spicy juice that you could leave your dentures at home and still indulge. Stews, in fact, seem to be the restaurant’s forte. Butter chicken lives up to its name as an indulgence to look forward to. And another chicken dish, saag wala, features a forest-green spinach sauce that doubles as a deliciously goopy dip for fried poori.
All of those rich, homey dishes lend Mehak the air of a down-home kitchen, albeit one that’s oddly strung. The wait staff varies widely in terms of individual flappability. One lunch, we’re treated to a flamboyant waiter around whom all the others seem to take their cues. When a woman at a nearby table complains about a dud in her meal, the guy all but bows before her, sending quiet shock waves throughout the place. As if she’d just missed being hit by a falling safe, every waiter on staff stops by to ask the woman how she is.
Things aren’t as cozy a few nights later, when we’re given the cold shoulder from a waiter who can’t tell us what kind of fish was used in the vindaloo. “Can you ask the chef?” He says no, he won’t. Apparently, the guy didn’t get the same sensitivity training that his colleagues did. When another staffer ushers an inebriated panhandler in and out of the upstairs bathroom, he remains unperturbed. He knows that it’s all part of doing business on this scale, at this address. For now.
Mehak, 817 7th St. NW, (202) 408-9292.
Amma, yet another Indian import from the ‘burbs (this one’s vegetarian), has all the ambiance of a high school study hall; the dinnerware’s disposable and the decor hardly exists. No matter. The rasam, a thin, spicy-sour soup, tastes like a warmed-up marriage between lemonade and a Bloody Mary; bobbing bulbs of stewed tomatoes are the only thing keeping you from ditching your spoon and slurping it down. Better yet are the utthappams. Both the onion and mixed-vegetable versions of the rice-and-lentil-flour pancake come with a bowl of sambar on the side—use it for dipping or dousing, depending on your style. If the spices get to you, there are three kinds of lassis waiting to cool you down.
Amma, 3291-A M St. NW, (202) 625-6625. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.