Thai, Indian, and Indo-Caribbean curries go head-to-head-to-head

Curries from Just Curry, Royal Indian, and Thai '99 II. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto. Curries from Just Curry, Royal Indian, and Thai ’99 II. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto.

What is the meaning of life? What is art? What is curry?

These are the questions that have plagued society’s greatest thinkers for centuries. Rest assured, life and art will be addressed at length in future C-VILLE Weekly issues. As for curry, the dish really can be a lot of things, as long as it features a mélange of spices and a combination of meats and/or veggies ensconced in sauce.

“Curry is gravy,” said Alex George, owner of the revitalized Just Curry on the Downtown Mall. “It’s tomato, onion, ginger, and garlic, cooked down, and we build from that.”

George, who also owns Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar, has done a lot to put curry on the local map since he first opened Just Curry in 2006 on the Corner. While that location and the restaurant’s second iteration in the Downtown transit station weren’t able to keep their doors open much beyond the late-2008 recession, fans of the curry counter remained, and George says the new location is thriving.

Yeah, O.K., great—but is it tasty? Another mystery of our time.

Of course it is. “Curry” is in some circles synonymous with spicy food, not only in the hot-spicy way, but also in the heavily-seasoned-spicy way. It’s the classic “meat and three” (protein, veggie, starch, sauce) with the added benefit of some of the most delicious aromatics in the world.

Just Curry serves up what it calls “Indo-Caribbean” curry, meaning the fast casual joint riffs on traditional Indian dishes, and some of the ingredients hail from nations around the Caribbean Sea. A traditional tikka masala sauce, for example, is studded with potatoes at Just Curry and served alongside fried plantains and a papaya hot sauce taken from a recipe common to George’s native Guyana.

So how does Just Curry’s fusion interpretation compare to the two titans of curry heritage, Indian and Thai cuisine? You’ll need to go no farther than Route 29 to find out. In one whirlwind tasting tour, I supped on the most popular curries at local favorites Thai ’99 II and Royal Indian. Both were what the restaurants called their signature chicken curries, and both were spiced to the chef’s specifications.

Royal Indian is hotel-style Indian, somewhere way across the spectrum from Bollywood-style. The space is clean, sterile, and decorated with a measure of restraint. It has a higher-end, if manufactured, feel, and the service is good, though maybe a touch impersonal. The chicken tikka masala at the restaurant reflects a lot of the same restraint and middle-of-the-road adequacy. The curry is creamy but lacks the extreme richness that makes your lips stick together at some Indian spots. The chef’s choice of spice level barely stings the tongue, and while the dish has a pervasive hint of ginger, it lacks the refreshing tang of some of Royal Indian’s contemporaries. The food is attractive on the plate and served in heaping portions, but the majority of the meal is rice, which makes the price tag of more than $15 less palatable than the grub.

Five minutes north of Royal Indian on 29, Thai ’99 II brings that reckless sense of décor that’s kitschy in the right hands. Unfortunately, it also delivers a somewhat underwhelming curry. Red Thai curry, with its native basil, lemongrass, and Thai chilies, can be extremely fragrant and refreshing. Thai ’99 II’s version of the dish, while fragrant, doesn’t have quite as much refreshing zip as I’d like. Still, the perennial Best of C-VILLE winner delivers a curry with ideal thickness, fresh veggies, and a kicked-up spice level. It does it all at a great price point, too, particularly during lunch when $7 gets you soup, a fried veggie roll, and a scoop of ice cream in addition to your curry.

But back to Just Curry. For those familiar with Chef George’s previous curry restaurants, a few changes should be noted, all of which the owner gratefully attributes to his fiancé Pooja. Pooja said she’s not only made the décor of Just Curry cleaner and more inviting, but she’s also made the curry healthier, removing most of the butter and cream of previous recipes. The result is thinner curry—somewhat more soup-like than sauce-like—that fortunately doesn’t suffer much on the taste front.

“Curry is already healthy,” George said. “We have enhanced the recipes by removing the unhealthy stuff. Everything here has minimum amounts of oil and butter.”

The potatoes in the restaurant’s signature “Buttah” chicken curry overcome the thinner texture to a point, and the accompaniments served at Just Curry do their part to dispense with any concerns about flavor. Plus, there’s one simple thing about the restaurant’s chicken dishes that really makes them shine. Where the Indian and Thai curries I tried are both made with white meat chicken tossed with the sauce, Just Curry’s is made with yogurt-marinated dark meat that’s allowed to stew in the sauce itself. With the higher fat content of the legs and thighs melting into the sauce and becoming one with the curry, the chicken comes out moist and infused with flavor.

“Indian people brought their culture into the Caribbean, so our curry really is based on Indian spices,” George said. “But the way I use it is a little different.”

Man, that’s deep.