Many folks assume they won’t like Indian food either because they think it will be too spicy, they won’t like curry or they’re just not sure of what they’re going to see on the plate in front of them.

First of all relax; there are many dishes that, while quite savory, aren’t in the least bit spicy. With a country as large as India, not to mention nearby countries that share similar dishes, there is a wide range of food as well as spice levels from mild to blow your head off. Vegetarians will be happy, because there are a great many vegetarian dishes (many Indians are vegetarians), but there are also dishes to delight meat and potato eaters, including meat and potatoes!

Let’s start with some of the easier dishes to master. Naan is a puffy bread, great for sopping up sauces and gravies. You can go for plain naan, but you’ll also find varieties with onions or garlic.

A tandoor is a kind of vertical oven and you can get a variety of meats grilled on spits in the tandoor. Tandoori chicken tends to be bright red, but is not spicy and is usually served skinless. I find meats cooked on a tandoor to be a bit on the dry side. Try dipping the meat in a chutney, a cross between a relish and a sauce that is usually fruit, herb or vegetable based. Some are spicy; some are sweet. Always take a little taste first. And remember, whenever something is too spicy, a sip of a yogurt based sauce (raita) or drink (lassi-a sort of mango milkshake) will quench that fire.

Another good dish for beginners is biryani, a sort of fried rice made with vegetables and vermicelli pasta and sometimes small pieces of meat. Rice-A-Roni, the supposed “San Francisco treat,” is basically a western rip-off of a biryani. Samosas are pastries filled with meat or vegetables, usually mildly spiced, and pakora are fritters made with any manner of vegetable. Dosa are crepes filled with vegetables or meat.

Now, on to the entrees. As mentioned, tandoori chicken, fish or shrimp are fairly safe options. If you prefer something creamier, try chicken korma or butter chicken which features a sauce made with tomatoes and yogurt. My sister, not the most adventurous eater, swears it tastes “just like vodka pasta sauce.”

If you want to get a little more exotic try chana masala, which is a sort of chili with chick peas instead of meat. Like chili, it can range from mild to spicy, so check first. Sag paneer is creamed spinach with chunks of paneer, a firm cheese. The paneer doesn’t melt, just sort of softens and adds a nice richness to the dish.

Let’s talk about meat. Most Americans tend to order beef or pork, neither of which will be found on an Indian menu. Instead you’ll find lamb or, if you’re adventurous, goat. Both if these tend to be served on the bone. If gnawing meat off a bone freaks you out, look for the word tikka, which means cutlet. Or ask for recommendations for something boneless before you order.

To sample a variety of dishes, look for a thali on the menu. Usually offered in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions, it offers small portions of a half dozen or so dishes, served with jasmine rice or biryani. Of course, for the widest variety you can head to a restaurant offering a buffet. In South Florida, most Indian restaurants only offer a buffet at lunch and on weekends.

The latest Indian restaurant to open in the area, 5th Element in Pompano, just offers a fairly extensive buffet for lunch. The original location is in Jacksonville and they’ve spent a great deal of time and money opening this new location. The food is quite good, but it’s a shame they didn’t put the same thought into designing the buffet.

It’s not the food that’s the problem, but the actual layout. There are two food stations, each offering about 10 items. However, there is only about three feet between the two stations. Not only is this probably a fire hazard, it makes it awfully difficult to maneuver the buffet during the busy lunch rush. Simply pushing one of the stations up to the wall and removing the ledges on the wall side would solve this problem.

Once you do get to the buffet the selections are thoughtfully arranged, with vegetarian fare on one side, meat and salads on the other. The pakora features only onions and would benefit from a wider variety of vegetables. They could get rid of the “fry-ums” which look like savory Lucky Charms and offer no flavor other than grease.

Chole batura and Naan offer great bread options for sopping up sauces, from such yummy dishes as malai methi (peas and cashew nuts in creamy sauce), dal (cooked lentils) and bhindi masala (batter-fried okra cooked with onions and peppers). For meat eaters, there is tandoori chicken as well as ginger chicken, butter chicken, lamb vindaloo (cooked with potatoes in a tangy and highly spiced sauce) and goat curry.

Cool off your palate with mango soft serve ice cream, kheer (sweet and creamy rice porridge) or gulab jamoon (milk dumplings steeped in saffron syrup). The lunch buffet is $9.95 weekdays $12.95 weekends. Dinners are served a la carte with entrees in the $10-$15 range, a few bucks less for vegetarian dishes, a few more for seafood.


5th Element Indian Grill  

1325 Powerline Rd., Pompano Beach