There must be 20 Indian and Pakistani restaurants in downtown Jackson Heights, most serving a meat-intensive menu of Punjabi or Indo-Chinese food — which is why Angel Indian Restaurant, which opened three weeks ago, is a breath of vegetarian fresh air. The new restaurant specializes in the vegetarian half of the Punjabi menu, while also featuring other distinctly northern Indian specialties.
Angel Indian, located at 74-14 37th Rd. between 74th and 75th Streets, is a brief hike from the Jackson Heights subway station. It’s run by chef Amrit Pal Singh, who was born in the city state of Pathankot, in the middle of Punjab right on the border of India and Pakistan, and came to the United States six years ago. He confirmed a rumor I’d heard: He’d worked previously alongside chef Chintan Pandya at Long Island City’s celebrated Adda, where pan-regional Indian home cooking is the focus.
Angel features a dum biryani, a dish that’s a signature at Adda, too. (Singh says he helped to create the version there.) Here, though, the goat is gone, and a friend and I didn’t miss it. In fact, the pie ($11.99), which consists of a casserole covered with a sheet of naan dough to seal in the flavors while baking, is perhaps more flavorful without the meat. The vegetable assortment contains jagged carrots and potatoes, as well as peas, cauliflower, onions, and fresh paneer cheese. The flavor is propelled by saffron and giant shards of ginger. When the dish arrives, the waiter ceremoniously cuts it open with a big spoon, and steam rushes out.
That fresh paneer appears in several other contexts, too. It’s not the plastic-wrapped and overly compressed cheese found in Indian supermarkets, but one freshly prepared on the premises — spongy, crumbly, and capable of absorbing sauces. The chef recommended paneer khurchan ($10.99), a dish popular back in India at the roadside restaurants known as dhabas. It was the spiciest thing we tasted that afternoon, dotted with yellow mustard seeds and redolent of tomatoes and green peppers.
We also tried the eggplant dish called baingan bharta, which was about average for the neighborhood, though more mashed up than usual, and a couple of apps, including a classic pani puri. This snack beloved of children features hollow and crisp cracker globes with lentils inside. To eat the orbs, pour tamarind chutney and a flavored water into the fissure at the top, then pop the whole thing into your mouth. Not spilling any of the liquid becomes a pleasurable contest.
There are several unexpected choices on the menu, including Amritsari stuffed kulcha, a sweet roll the size of a hamburger bun with a flavored chickpea filling. It’s a popular roadside item across Amritsar; the Angel version is modeled after those street vendor versions, according to the chef, who brought the sandwich to our table himself. It might remind you of the doubles found in Brooklyn’s Trinidadian cafes.
The dining room is small and sparsely decorated, with a few pots of artificial flowers here and there, and some foil stars on the wall. A band of artificial brick works its way around the room, and a kitchen runs along one side, separated from the dining area by a five-foot wall, above which the chef’s head can be seen merrily bobbing as he prepares food, most of which is made to order.
Angel is one wonderful restaurant, with a menu of unfailingly flavorful and pungent dishes that provide a thumbnail of vegetarian northern Indian cooking. Heck, there’s even a southern masala dosa on the menu that I look forward to trying. Really, as an inducement to vegetarianism, few New York City restaurants are this persuasive.