Late Night DiningBy Zarminae Ansari
225 Hampshire Street, Inman Square, Cambridge
Open 11:00am to midnight
It is always surprising to newcomers to the Boston area that there is such a lack of late-night eating options in the MIT/Harvard vicinity -- most places close their kitchens by 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. Punjabi Dhaba is a new Indian restaurant in Inman Square that stays open late, serves great food, and is cheap. In other words: it is a student’s heaven.
A “Dhaba” is a highway-side cafe primarily patronized by truck drivers in the Punjab region of Northern India. Service is fast but very basic. Fresh from the tandoori oven come bread and delicious spicy food; dhabas make up in taste what they lack in tastefulness. Punjabi Dhaba has all these aspects.
Punjabi Dhaba is the fourth in a chain of Boston restaurants: Akbar, India Pavilion and Gandhi. However, while the others are primarily sit-down and more formal, the Dhaba only seats 15 on the main floor with seating for about 25 upstairs, and works on the freshly-cooked but fast-food concept. The wait is usually 15 minutes, although I have waited for as long as 30 minutes. It is a self-service restaurant: you order, pay, and then wait for your order to be called out.
The best-selling dishes at the Dhaba are also their tastiest. The Chicken Tikka Masala and the Veggie platter both sell for the unbelievably reasonable price of $6.95 including rice and chutney. Other good vegetarian options are the Saag Paneer (pureed creamed spinach with homemade cheese cubes, $4.95) and all the breads, Parathas and Nans ($1.50-$2.95), with Yogurt or Raita (spiced yogurt with vegetables, $0.75). Especially good is the Gobi Paratha: fried bread layered with cooked cauliflower. Try dipping a plain Paratha into the Masala tea for a truly authentic roadside and village experience from the Indian subcontinent.
Sweets are made at one of the other restaurants and, at $1, are cheaper than a scone or even a cookie at other fast food places. This is surprising, since they are not machine made, and are quite labor-intensive, such as the Gaajar Halwa (carrot desert) and the Gulab Jamuns (fried flour and milk dumplings in rose water flavored sugar syrup). During the summer, the Mango Lassi (mango yogurt drink, $1.95) is a great thirst quencher. For the cooler weather, the Masala Tea ($1.50) might be a better bet, although it’s not consistently as good.
On the downside, the fish curry definitely needs improvement. The texture of the fish and the combination of spices seemed to make the freshness suspect and the fish is rather dried out. In addition, the potato filling for the Aloo Paratha would be better without peas.
Overall, the Dhaba is popular and attracts repeat business due to its reasonable prices and good, hot meals.