Setting the Standard India Palace

by Robert Lilligard

What’s my favorite restaurant in Duluth? India Palace. That’s a true answer (in some respects) and also a safe one. If I were to name any of my current or former clients, the others could grumble that I had no loyalty. But because Indian food is the world’s most amazing form of cooking, and there’s only one Indian restaurant in Duluth...well. The India Palace wins by default.

There are other places I enjoy when I’m in different moods. There are fancier places and quirkier places, more adventurous chefs and down-home Superior bargains. But no one else is doing Indian food.

I took my daughters there the other day when my wife was getting her family’s resort on Leech Lake ready for the season. I’ll take the kids to the playground or let them run around the living room if I have them for two hours, but any time I watch them for a whole day it ends up being this big adventure: the zoo! Ethnic food! Live music! I hear “you’re such a great dad” but the truth is I’m largely steering the girls towards what I feel like doing anyway. Once, when my princess was three, I took her to a high end Japanese place in the Twin Cities. Ruby, who has a book where Goofy and Mickey Mouse go to Japan, sat for three and a half hours. Most of my adult friends can’t sit through a dinner half that long.

Indian food was an adventure as well. I found parking on or near Superior Street, which isn’t actually that hard on a Thursday even during road construction. I got the standard oohs and ahhs as the ladies toddled in (they’re 2 and 4 and have a German backpack that looks like a bee—what do you expect?) Then it was time to buckle down and share some ad-hoc semi-accurate cultural insights. I visited India for a couple of weeks, but it’s an enormous and complicated country and I’m not exactly an expert. One thing I learned from a homeschooling mom, though, is that you don’t have to be an expert to teach—you just have to know more than your kids. So we talked about the Hindu art on the walls, and the music we heard over the intercom, and I showed them pictures from a large photo book. Mercedes tuned out and wanted to ride on the large-ish carved elephant. Ruby was more intrigued. When I told her access to toilets was a serious problem in India, she wanted to send them money in the mail so they could buy more. She really is a budding philantrophist when she’s not acting like a budding sociopath.

But let’s get back to the food, because that’s why I was there and probably why you’d be there. I love the chai, a milky and semi-sweet tea redolent with exotic spices like cardamom and cinnamon. In fact, I realized years later that on my visit to India I was subconsciously using the India Palace chai as my benchmark. Wantonly unfair? Yes. Does the heart have reasons reason doesn’t understand? Also yes. I made my girls drink water, because I might be an awesome dad but I also have a finite bank balance.

The buffet is fun. It’s better than what I’m able to make at home, which is really all I ask for since I’m obviously not driving to Minneapolis just for lunch. Regular items include crunchy lentil papadum, reliably tender naan, creamy veggie korma, and a saag dish (I prefer the paaner to the mushrooms). My rule for buffets is that vegetable dishes taste better than the meat ones, because it’s too easy to let the meat get dry or overcooked. If you need some protein, you’ll see chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, and meatballs makhani. I find the chicken dishes somewhat dry, but my two year old sucked down the meatballs like she was a shop vac. There are some nice chutneys. I miss the tangy onion chutney, but am glad they kept mint and tamarind and think the ultra-sour and odd Indian pickle is a fun addition.

One last fact about the India Palace. Because we’re in Duluth, nothing is spicy unless you ask for it that way. It’s a perfect compromise between India and our upper midwest palates. And my little ladies loved it. The earlier, the better—hopefully they’ll be cooking it for me soon.