Indo Wok is the third Indo-Chinese restaurant to open in Manhattan’s Curry Hill in the last year. Though the fad has yet to challenge the hegemony of kosher dosa joints in the neighborhood, it’s coming close. Pakistani places are barely hanging on—though the most prominent exemplar, Haandi, remains the area’s best restaurant. Meanwhile, a broad swath of Queens, from Jackson Heights to Maspeth, now hosts a dozen Indo-Chinese establishments, which serve Chinese food reconfigured for Indian tastes. As competition heats up, the oft-mediocre chow seems to be improving.
Hallmarks of this cuisine, which originated in cities with large Chinese populations like Bombay, Chennai, and Bangalore, are pummeling amounts of fresh garlic, ginger, and hot chiles—like ramped-up curries minus the ground spices. On the negative side of the ledger, there’s too much white sugar and cornstarch, turning many Indo-Chinese concoctions into treacly puddings. Indo Wok has improved the formula by cutting the sugar allotment while preserving the heat, though the cornstarch is still painfully evident. The spiciest and also the strangest thing my pals and I encountered on three visits was beef Mongolian ($12.50). Mantled with crisp fried noodles, the seething crimson stew reeked of vinegar, like a vindaloo from the former Portuguese-Indian colony of Goa. And like a vindaloo, it was fiery as hell.
Though the beef was memorable, there was nothing Mongolian about it. This penchant for drawing regional names out of a hat when it comes to identifying dishes is a kooky passion of Indo-Chinese restaurateurs, who match a series of stock sauces of varying degrees of heat with chicken, shrimp, lamb, beef, and vegetables to create a menu. Thus we have the comically spelled shrimp schezwon ($12.95), which features plenty of large shrimp. The sauce, though, is a thick red glop that you might find yourself mopping off with a napkin before knocking back the decapods. Lamb Manchurian represents another misnomer, though the brown gravy is a dead ringer for the garlic sauce that might be found in any good neighborhood Chinese restaurant, with verdant doses of scallions and cilantro. The same sauce works just as well with eggplant ($8.95).
Manchurian sauce is also an asset in the most popular Indo-Chinese appetizer, lollipop chicken wings ($6.95 for six), wherein the avian appendages have been thoroughly mutilated by pushing the meat to the bone’s extreme. I guess it looks like a lollipop, though ones that have been dragged through a Calcutta gutter. The best sauce, hands down, is simply designated “chilli.” If Indo-Chinese had its own haute cuisine, this would be it. Chilli chicken has become so popular in town that it has wormed its way onto many regular Indian menus. Once again, Indo Wok rules, injecting green chiles into a brownish-red sauce, preserving the flames that made the recipe notorious but dispensing with the sweetness.
Unaccountably, there are unreconstructed Indian and Chinese dishes on the menu. In the former category, find vegetable pakora—fried patties of shredded vegetable matter offered with a thick tamarind dipping sauce; in the latter, a fine plate of thin Hakka noodles stir-fried into mellowness with every imaginable protein source. Still, a friend who is a Chinatown aficionado complained one evening, “This food is really much more Indian than Chinese.”