Oft lauded as the gem of Inman Square, expectations ran high before our visit to Punjabi Dhaba (PD), which occupies a shanty-style storefront on the corner of Cambridge and Hampshire. Despite the glass-panelled façade, a clear view of the PD’s interior was well occluded by the translucent sheen of grease we had become so accustomed to in the seedier establishments of Berkeley. Upon entering, one is immediately confronted with an imposing ordering counter, above which hang haphazard and grease-soiled menus. These menus, despite being produced by the well known restaurant menu conglomerate “Omega Menu,” lacked organization, with discontinuous numbering between adjacent sections. This, combined with the multiply degenerate numbering scheme and plethora of typos, led us to concluded that Omega Menu should stick with its native Greek.
Upon ordering, patrons were given tickets with a printed number, raising hopes that PD’s rough exterior hid a well organized kitchen. Our hopes were quickly dashed by prominent signage informing us that “Ticket numbers are identifiers only,” and that the “Sequence [was] subject to change” without notice. Clearly the uselessness of this system this had been a source of customer frustration in the past, leading PD management to add the tiny inscription, “Please do not harass staff.”
Despite these ominous warnings, our food arrived within 2 minutes with a quality reflective of its terrifyingly rapid preparation. The mango lassi ($2.5) was too sweet and lacked sufficient viscosity, and the batura ($4) tasted a bit too much like fried dough from a carnival. The nan ($2) had the consistency of tough meat, was served at below room temperature, and tasted liked rubber; and while the pakoras ($2) felt edible, they were tasteless nonetheless. The goat curry ($11) lacked spice, and was not very tender. The vegetarian eigendish aloo gobi ($6) contained disintegrated cauliflower and overcooked potato, and lacked spice. The only redeeming portion of the meal was the the chana masala ($6) (also referred to as chole masalewala), but this item was sent to us in error, presumably due to confusion caused by the redundant menu numbering system.
The generally seedy interior décor reminded us of HOCOD in Berkeley, with the familiar grease-film-coated cups, salt shakers, and serving utensils. We were also surprised (or perhaps not surprised?) to find a blocked emergency fire exit, and risqué wall art featuring well endowed deities. The water, dispensed from an exceedingly slow fountain, did not taste like H2O, leading us to suspect significant contamination, perhaps from roadside pollution.
Given the numerous missteps in both food quality and ambiance, we have no choice to but to award PD only 2 samosas (▲▲); with 1 rupee (₨) prices, this leads to the unremarkable samosa-to-rupee ratio of 2.0. PD claims to be an “Indian Highway-side Cafe.” “Highway-side” is indeed appropriate, as PD manages remarkably faithfully to reproduce the filth, congestion, and disorganization surrounding such establishments in India, but with none of the charm or renowned fare.