Spice and Rice is behind a filling station and convenience store on the east edge of Norman’s Campus Corner. Because of close proximity to campus and limited space in the tiny strip mall, parking is a bit of a nuisance, but it’s worth the hassle.
Don’t go looking for fancy at this one-room restaurant, which has a tiny dining area on one side and stainless steel racks of Indian grocery staples on the other. Orders are placed at a counter, and everything is served in Styrofoam containers. Don’t let the simplicity fool you, however. It’s the kind of place people searching for authentic ethnic food delight in discovering.
The homey ambience is inviting and unpretentious. Bollywood pop plays on the sound system, and suppliers deliver fresh produce through the front door. Cinder block walls are painted bright red and adorned with Indian folk art.
But the quality of the cuisine is at the same level or higher than any of the more swanky Indian restaurants around the metro.
“The taste of our food is really authentic,” said Shamin Merchant, spouse of Kabir Merchant, who owns and operates Spice and Rice. “The chicken and beef we serve is 100 percent halal, because we want to serve the Muslim community, too.”
Spice and Rice has not tamed its family recipes for American tastes, either. Its customer base has been largely the University of Oklahoma community, many of them international students who appreciate the vivid, authentic flavors of India.
Hot hot hot
Chicken Vindaloo ($6.99) is a scorcher — hands down the spiciest I’ve ever tasted in an American restaurant. The dish is a staple of curry houses globally, and just how hot it is depends on where you are.
This little joint in Norman must rival the rest of world’s vindaloos for fiery taste. It isn’t skimping on the chili, ginger and cumin. It was hot but good. You need plenty of beverage to go along with this vindaloo.
There’s no beer or any other alcohol on the menu, but it has Sweet Lassi ($2.99), a Punjabi-style creamy shake made with yogurt and rose water.
Chicken 65 is fried white meat that’s a vibrant brick red color from cayenne and other spices. Big chunks of chicken marinated in mustard and vinegar are then garnished with cilantro and served with basmati rice. The dish’s name derives from its popularity with Indian soldiers assigned to a Tamil-speaking district. They couldn’t read the menus, so they ordered by number.
The most popular menu item, according to Shamin Merchant, is chicken tikka masala ($7.99).
“Anybody who wants to try Indian food for the very first time should try that,” he said.
Tomato, paprika and coriander give the dish its familiar orange glow. Noticeably striking flavors come from spice variations in family recipes.
Platters ($7.99-$9.99) are a complete meal with an entrée, lentil stew daal, rice, naan and rice pudding for dessert. Except for these platters, naan or flatbread may be ordered separately. Order a side of naan ($1.29) if you don’t get a platter because it’s one of those easily overlooked fundamentals in which Spice and Rice shines. The bread is baked fresh and comes with distinctive griddle marks and a substantial chewy texture.
Vegetable Birynai ($6.99) would be a treat for any of your vegetarian pals. Order this for them and you’ll have a friend forever. It’s a stir of basmati rice and mixed veggies with complex and rich flavors.
The courageous blast of tamarind, ginger and turmeric shows why Spice goes ahead of Rice in this place’s name.
Oklahoma Gazette’s restaurant review policy is to highlight the positive aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambience or service when appropriate.