For years, whenever someone asked me for vegetarian recommendations in Columbia (and in my particular job, you'd be surprised how often you get asked such things), two words instantly left my lips: Mango Grove. In fact, I'd recommend the popular vegetarian Indian eatery to all people, even those who eat meat. But I found that a lot of people weren't interested in a meat-free restaurant, no matter how tasty a bargain I said it was. Evidently, Mango Grove's owners discovered the same thing, because last year they opened Mirchi Wok right next door to their existing place. Mirchi offers a wide range of meat dishes, from standards like kabobs and vindaloo to more unusual Indo-Chinese items cooked in a heavy-bottomed Indian wok (hence the restaurant's name).
I'm not sure if the strategy has worked for them; on our visit, Mango Grove was hopping, but we had Mirchi Wok's plain and brightly lit dining room to ourselves for the first half of our meal. That's too bad, because most of what we ate impressed us greatly.
At first, the evening seemed like an exercise in cruelty for my friend Jen, who is, ironically enough, vegetarian. But her eyes lit up once she opened the menu: "Look at all the stuff I can eat!" she marveled. Indeed, there are over a dozen vegetarian entrées available—though, because some are cooked in the adjoining restaurant's kitchen, there can be a slight delay in receiving them. (Beer and wine also come from next door.)
Jen's husband Martin and I, meanwhile, seemed bent on eating as many kinds of animal as possible. We started with momos ($4.95), gingery dumplings filled with ground meat—in this case, chicken. Personally, I prefer lamb momos with thicker skins, but these were fine for what they were. Better was the "mix grill" ($12.95), featuring four kinds of kabob: tangy and tender chicken tandoori, lime-marinated lamb, minty grilled chicken, and a delicious but disturbing-looking lamb sausage flavored with cloves and cinnamon. Jen, meanwhile, tucked into an order of samosas ($3.95), which were well-spiced but a little lacking in texture.
Mirchi's spicing remained a highlight throughout our meal; evidently, the kitchen mixes its own curries, and you can tell in the subtlety and depth of its sauces. Saag paneer, that spinach-and-cheese staple, was made interesting with a hefty dose of chili ($10.95); a creamy korma sauce, mellowed with the flavor of sweet cashews, was likewise more complex than I've been accustomed to eating, though lobster turned out to be the wrong pairing for it ($18.95). Still, the lobster itself tasted fresh and well-cooked, making me want to return to try more of their seafood offerings.
Indeed, there was a lot I'd like to go back to try—like the nalli bakra nihari, goat shanks cooked in their own marrow with cardamom and saffron ($12.95). Instead, I opted for the intriguingly named "Chicken 65," an Indian take on sweet-and-sour cooked in a wok ($12.95). I'm not sure I've tasted anything quite like it before; there were, indeed, elements that almost tasted Chinese, but the generous lacing of curry leaves brought me back to India. It's hard for me to tell how much I liked it because it was good and how much I liked it because it was novel; whatever the case, I enjoyed it, though I was glad for our order of mint-and-cilantro-flecked flatbread ($2.95) to absorb its fiery kick.
Mirchi Wok offers a buffet at lunchtime ($7.95 weekdays, $10.95 weekends), but I hope people go for dinner so they can try the kitchen's more unusual offerings. At any rate, I now have two more words to throw at people who ask me for Columbia dining advice—whatever their dietary preferences might be.
Mirchi Wok, 6365A Dobbin Road, Columbia, 410-730-4689. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m Mon-Fri and noon-3 p.m. Sat-Sun for lunch; 5-9:30 p.m. Sun-Tue, 5-10 p.m. Wed-Thu, 5-10:30 p.m. Fri-Sat for dinner.