If the name of Milwaukee’s newest Indian restaurant sounds familiar, it should. Perhaps you noticed the Cafe India sign while gassing up at the Walker’s Point Mobil station. Maybe you even threw caution to the wind and tried Indian food prepared and served in the gas station plaza. Those who so brazenly risked the fate of their gastrointestinal health at the established flagship establishment were handsomely rewarded with tasty, inexpensive cuisine that more than offset the unsavory location in which it was being consumed. Those who were either unable to get past Cafe India’s placement directly betwixt a filling station and a liquor store or just simply unaware of the tucked-away eatery’s existence might have an easier time visiting the second Cafe India—blocks from the nearest gas station.
Last Friday, amid the Bay View Gallery night excitement, the newest Cafe India (2201 S. Kinnickinnic) opened. Originally projected to be open this past spring, the long-awaited restaurant quietly cut a ribbon and finally allowed in customers. With an extensively renovated edifice and ample culinary competition in the ever-expanding dining bastion that is Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, expectations are high. Under a week into its existence, Milwaukee Record went to the Indian restaurant to see if the charming, diamond-in-the-rough gas station plaza cuisine we love translated to a significantly nicer setting.
The space: Formerly the offices of the Bay View Area Redcats youth sports organization, this weathered, nondescript relic of the old Bay View for which lifers long was significantly gussied up, both inside and out. A spacious covered patio and outdoor hookah lounge sprawls off the building’s southern end. The interior is a tad less roomy, with just 11 tables and approximately half a dozen bar stools. However, the decor successfully blends cozy and chic with flawless hardwood flooring; hand-painted murals of flowers, Taj Mahal, and elephants on walls; numerous windows, and swanky partial booths lining both walls. At the rear of the restaurant, a big flat screen television was showing Matinee Masala on B4U, a Bollywood network.
The service: We arrived at high noon, the peak of the new restaurant’s rush hour (complete with about 15 people aware of the establishment’s opening). Immediately upon entering, an upbeat ownership-type walked out from behind the bar to meet us at the entrance, shake our hand, and thank us for coming in. Warm welcome issued, he sat us at one of the few two-tops in the middle of the three-column table arrangement. During the visit, he’d return occasionally to ensure our water glass never sunk below half full. Additionally, a server would frequently come by to offer fresh, warm naan (one variety brushed with fresh garlic and butter). As nice of a touch as straight-to-table naan seems, we were frequently forced to answer whether we wanted any mid-bite. We’d take slightly older naan in a chafing dish over being asked if we wanted the bread in five-minute increments (usually with food in our mouth). As it’s a new place, we’ll chalk it up to wanting to set an early theme of attentive service this time around.
Milwaukee Record’s food: Yes, we are well aware that it’s not the best representation of a restaurant’s true quality, but we weren’t going to turn down the lunch buffet ($9.99). In fact, it might have been the only option at the time, as we needed to actually reach behind the bar to snag a menu between buffet trips. Though far from vast, the approximately dozen-option smorgasbord was a decent embodiment of the massive menu’s greatest hits. We started with an amalgam of potatoes, peas, onion, mushrooms, and a myriad of spices—simply called “Veggie Special”—all set atop a thin bed of jasmine rice. We echoed that with the chickpea-based Channa Masala, in which chili powder and cinnamon wrestled for control, only to wind up in a delicious draw. Keeping with the early vegetarian theme, we nibbled on a samosa-like fried pocket of broccoli, onion, and cauliflower (called a “Parantha”) and bowled up a dab of lentil-laden Dal before moving to the meaty end of the spectrum (and buffet). There, we indulged in a smokey and scrumptious Chicken Curry on our way to navigating around the bones (intentionally left in, as warned) in the rich, borderline-too-greasy Lamb Curry.
As curry dishes are concerned, these palatable lunch-hour renditions were severely lacking in the spice department, but they somewhat addressed the absence of any semblance of tongue-tingling and sinus-evacuation with a bold flavor profile that found the aforementioned cinnamon and even tomatoes creeping into dishes. Strangely, the creamy, fluorescent orange Chicken Tikka Masala was the spiciest selection we sampled…and still left us wanting more. Speaking of fluorescent hues, we decided to put off trying the neon green Panak Paneer (a spinach-based, or “saag”) until a future visit. It was shades brighter than any saag we’d tried elsewhere, and it brought back memories of the food fight scene in Hook
If a continually-filled glass of water isn’t your thing, there’s a fully stocked bar (no tap options), and non-alcoholic Indian standards Masala Chai and everyone’s favorite, the Mango Lassi.
The verdict: With a pristine interior, perhaps the best patio in Bay View, and an abundance of cheap, tasty Indian cuisine, Cafe India’s sequel is a top-tier buffet destination, and even better than the original.