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Bawarchi Indian Kitchen in Culver City

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Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you think she should go next? Drop us a line.

You've got to hand it to Bawarchi Indian Kitchen. The Culver City restaurant opened about six months ago right next to an existing Indian restaurant. Which means when diners decide to take the plunge and go meatless at the all-vegetarian Bawarchi, they have chicken tandoori and lamb korma tempting them from just a few feet away. Bawarchi, however, seems to be luring them in just fine. The day I stop in for lunch at this small storefront with just nine two-top tables, the place quickly fills up. There are several couples, a few single diners on a lunch break, someone picking up takeout and a vegetarian guy who'd been in for dinner the night before returning with three carnivorous friends to check it out.

Though items are available a la carte, nearly all of the customers order the lunch special (which is also the dinner special). Eight dollars gets you basmati rice, naan, shai raita, salad, pappadum, and three items from the "buffet," a row of about 20 dishes behind glass at the counter, served up by an employee. There are plenty of the usual Indian vegetarian dishes as well as some dubbed "chef's creations," like a roasted jackfruit curry and a "24-hour" dal, simmered for, yep, 24 hours. I choose plain naan (garlic's also available) and basmati palau rice spiked with carrots, peas, cashews and cabbage, a spicy chickpea dish, dum palak aloo with spinach and potato, and chicken tikka masala made with soy chicken. Everything gets served up in lovely little deep-purple bowls and placed on a tray along with pre-scooped servings of salad and raita pulled out of a display case.

My spinach dish is especially good, with buttery chunks of potatoes and pieces of spinach cooked down. The creamy tikka masala sauce is decadent and savory with a touch of sweetness and kick at the end. While the little balls of soy chicken aren't bad, they're kind of rubbery, though better than other meatless meat I've tried. Still, I'd probably prefer a straight vegetable dish next time around. The dry garden salad is boring, but the delicate raita, peppered with diced tomatoes and cucumbers, is some of the best I've had in recent memory. The chickpeas have a flavor I can't place, so when Chef Sabherwal (whose bearded face serves as the restaurant's logo) walks by, I inquire about it. The secret to this dish, he tells me, is poppy seeds and spinach. When I ask him if he had a restaurant before this one he says no (though he has 20 years cooking experience) and before I can follow up, he launches into a spiel about how his food is easier to digest than that served at other restaurants, like Korean places and Jack in the Box. I'm not sure how one would go about trying to prove him wrong.

A server arrives with the naan a few minutes after I sit down, ostensibly because it's right out of the oven, but it's actually not all that warm. My biggest complaint about Bawarchi — and hopefully it's one the place can easily address — is that the items from the buffet are hot, but not piping hot. If I could scarf it all down in 60 seconds, I'd be all set. But a few minutes in, most of the stuff is more like lukewarm.

For a fast-foodesque eatery, the room is warm and welcoming with hanging glass lanterns, blonde wood-paneled walls, exposed brick and sleek black chairs. And, all of the patrons seem to be buzzing with enthusiasm over just being here, chatting up the chef, sampling items at the counter, quizzing fellow diners on what they're getting. The woman next to me exclaims, "Everything's great but it's so much food!" One of the vegetarian's friend asks, "Wait, it's chicken but it's not really chicken?" before agreeing to try it. And the chef circles the room asking everyone how they like everything (and maybe engaging in more digestive discussion).

So even if faux meat isn't up your alley, there's enough good stuff here — and for just eight bucks, no less — to make it worth going meatless for at least one meal. Bawarchi does a nice job utilizing fresh ingredients, bold flavors and creativity, now it just needs to literally turn up the heat.
Lunch and Dinner items: $1-$8
310-836-8525; website
—Lizbeth Scordo

Bawarchi Indian Kitchen

10408 Venice Boulevard, Culver City, CA, 90232