225 Hampshire, Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 547 8272
Open Everyday 12:00–11:30 p.m.
Inman Square in Cambridge is packed with pricey bars and Portuguese/Brazilian cuisine that will give you a classy dining experience provided you give them most of your money. Instead, wander into the small, unassuming Indian restaurant at the center of the Square: Punjabi Dhaba, a little restaurant that Harvard students swear by but MIT students seem to have largely left unexplored.
The first thing that hits you when you enter Punjabi Dhaba is the smell from the open kitchen. All items are made to order without the use of heating lamps or warmers. The result is the smell of curry, herbs, and spices that will entice those with a passion for strong flavors and fresh foods.
Making your way to the counter (or the long line if you chose to come on a Friday or Saturday night) you will immediately be drawn to the sound of loud Indian music videos playing on the small, analog TV in the corner. While it’s hard to say if this music is for an authentic customer experience or for the entertainment of the cooks, it is certainly different if not somewhat distracting.
Ordering at Punjabi Dhaba is perhaps the most frustrating part of a visit to the restaurant. Although menus are posted in plastic placard lettering behind the counter, customers who have been to the restaurant before know to skip those hard to navigate billboards and instead grab a printed menu from the register. Be prepared to yell your order over the blaring bhangra and be prepared to pay in cash since neither credit nor debit cards are accepted.
A good start for a first time visitor are the Dhaba Specials or House Combos. Each includes naan and basmati rice. My personal favorite is the special curry platter ($8.95 + tax). Almost big enough to share, the special curry platter will give you a taste of almost everything. The chicken curry is particularly moist and is a great compliment to the rich, sweet flavors of the basmati rice. Don’t expect the same taste twice; each time, the basmati rice will come out a different flavor and appearance depending on the cook and the ingredients.
If you want to try something that can’t be purchased in the second floor of the Student Center, go with the half order tandoori chicken with naan ($7.95). The specialty of Punjabi Dhaba is their moist, dark meats. This grilled specialty is flavored with yogurt, ginger, and spices and provides what some might consider an Indian flavor to an “American classic.” Don’t be fooled: This meat can pack a punch but is generally a milder choice for those who prefer less spicy foods. All food is served on metal trays, similar to those used in India. For a quieter, more spacious dining experience, carry your tray to one of the two rooms on the second floor. Not only will you avoid the loud music videos, but you may also have the room to yourself as Punjabi Dhaba tends to serve a lot of takeout. When you are finished, return your tray to the front counter and consider buying a mango-flavored yogurt smoothie ($2.50 + tax) for the road.
Overall, don’t expect any frills, waiting, or romantic ambiance. Ultimately, Punjabi Dhaba holds true to its tagline: “The Indian Highway-Side Café.” The restaurant captures the atmosphere and flavors that you might find at an affordable restaurant in India. Less than a mile away from MIT and less than $10 per person, Punjabi Dhaba is the place to go if you are looking to dine on a budget.