A couple of times in the last week, I've mentioned that I recently ate at an Indian restaurant in Towson, and the other person's eyes have lit up. "Cafe Spice?" they say. "Isn't it awesome?"
Well, yes, it kind of is. For one thing, there's the satisfaction of having found a secret gem: The place is hidden away in a basement below a 7-Eleven. The owners have done as much as they can to make the windowless, brick-lined room feel gracious, including the addition of an exuberantly decorated corner fountain guaranteed to mesmerize any children in your party.
What really makes Cafe Spice overcome its location, however, is the food and ultra-friendly service. We could not keep a water glass empty; when our entrées did not appear immediately after our appetizers, someone came by to apologize and explain the delay. (In the end, they still arrived well within the standard wait period.)
And the food itself was excellent. We became instant fans of papdi chaat ($3.99), a sort of Indian take on nachos: Crisp crackers were topped with chickpeas, diced potato, green onion, and yogurt and tamarind sauces. Chicken pakora ($4.99) featured tender morsels of bird fried in a light, spicy batter. The vegetable samosas ($2.99 for two) were more heavily spiced than I normally find them to be, with the sweet pungency of star anise making a strong showing in the blend.
Entrées were just as impressive. Vegetarians have almost 20 options from which to choose. We tried the bhindi masala, okra stewed in a tangy and fiery tomato-cream sauce ($9.99) and the malai kofta ($10.99), in which fried balls of vegetable and cheese swam in an ultra-rich cream sauce. Our only complaint was that we could have used one or two more veggie balls in our kofta; not that it wasn't enough food, but when everything else was so generously portioned, merely adequate amounts of food suddenly seemed disappointing.
We definitely had plenty of our two meat entrées. I decided to try an old staple, chicken saag ($11.99); the ubiquitous creamed spinach dish was made distinguished by its complex mix of spices and liberal lacing with fresh ginger. Grated paneer cheese on top was a nice bonus, and the chicken itself was, once again, meltingly tender. The lamb bhuna ($13.99) also featured tender, mildly flavored meat, this time sautéed in an appealingly spicy-sour combination of mustard, fresh chili peppers, onions, cilantro, and lemon.
We opted for an all-cheese dessert course, ordering both the gulab jamun($3.99) and the rasmalai ($4.99). The former was, as it often is, a super-sweet indulgence, the balls of fried cottage cheese swimming in rose-scented sugar syrup. The latter seemed light by comparison; after so many bold flavors, I really enjoyed the refreshing simplicity of the cold steamed cheese in its soothing milk bath, pleasantly reminiscent of both cheesecake and rice pudding.
It's easy to see why Cafe Spice provokes such enthusiasm in the people who have discovered it; its standard Indian dishes are all just a little more intensely flavored and thoughtfully prepared than usual, and there are enough unusual items on the menu to give more adventurous diners a taste of novelty. And all under a 7-Eleven. That is kind of awesome, isn't it?
Cafe Spice, 321 York Road, Towson, 410-583-7770. Hours: Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.