India Mahal was a Raleigh institution. In its understated way, the little moldering white building on Hillsborough Street was the front line of the war between old and new Raleigh.
Opinions and judgments were deeply polarized: either you liked the stale, room-temperature AC, the dirty forks and strands of hair, the heat-lamp-encrusted palak paneer, or you didn't. And if you weren't among the germaphobe, pocket Purell set who decried India Mahal on Yelp, you were glad that this disregard for sanitation and barely passable food kept those people away, leaving the bleached-out tables by the window wide open for parties of one.
On any weekday you could find people sitting alone, shoveling overfull buffet plates into their food holes, staring off in space or reading books. Sad people, comforted by the worn, lower-class ambience, rand the sweet older Punjab couple who often waited the tables themselves.
In an interview about his tattoos, Lil Wayne once said something like, "I like tattoos, because when you get into an elevator, certain people step away; but then certain people come closer."
India Mahal was like that. I remember running into lauded North Carolina novelist Wilton Barndhardt there and thinking: Thank God, success hasn't spoiled him. He's not finicky.
It was a surprise for regulars to see India Mahal close this summer. An "under new ownership" sign went up and it was suddenly the Wild Cook's Indian Grill.
Who was this "Wild Cook" and would he be able to provide passable Indian food for bargain prices? The new sign was a bold statement. A backlit beacon of bright orange flames, with a half moon and a wolf howling on top. I assumed the worst—the Chipotle-ization of India Mahal.
Thankfully, the Wild Cook's Indian Grill is not India Mahal reborn as a sleek, sterile, Thaiphoon-style, salmon-shirt magnet. While the new owners have dusted out the cobwebs, it retains India Mahal's cozy, living-room vibe. If most new restaurant launches are glitzy Hollywood productions, the Wild Cook is a B-movie, charming, yet amateurish.
The service is still working through some hiccups but the food is a vast improvement. The new owner, Nasir Khan, is from the Punjab region of Pakistan. He was working at Whole Foods as a cook when he stumbled on the opportunity to buy Mahal from the previous owners. Khan has revamped the menu with more Punjab Pakistani dishes, but has kept some favorites from the original Indian menu.
The gregarious Khan seems to be running the place by himself, greeting guests, seating them, and running interference for the waiters, N.C. State students in paramedic-orange "Wild Cook" tees. Khan provides the complimentary Papadum—think crisp, spicy Communion wafer—with an assortment of chutneys and dipping sauces.
The navaratan shaki korma, a creamy, curried vegetable dish, is incredible. The goat jalfrezi is also fantastic, and the naan is neither too thick nor too thin (or oily). Desserts also mark an improvement.Khan's gulab jamun, a deep fried dumpling ball soaked in rose water and sugar syrup, is heavenly. It goes perfectly with the kheer, a cold, milky rice pudding covered in pistachios and almonds. Something in the way Khan prepares the food blows India Mahal away.
The servers need help. On my first visit I witnessed my waitress getting into an awkwardly in-depth discussion with her customer about traveling to Pakistan; she forgot the other tables waiting to order. The other waiters seem uncomfortable and untrained. They didn't clear the table between courses and had a hard time tallying up the bill and running the credit cards.
There was also an employee clothes rack in the little hallway to the bathroom, flip flops strewn about. It doesn't bother me but if bothers you, get over it. Again, it's not about the furnishings, or the service, or the "experience"—it's about stuffing your face with good Indian food.
The Wild Cook has met and exceeded India Mahal. I hardly even remember what India Mahal was anymore.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Change is good"