The Chef’s Special Green Chicken is made with gongura, a plant grown in South India. Photo by Leslie Bridgers

I’ve always wondered how much weather affects business at certain food establishments. Obviously, ice cream stands do better in the heat, and I’m guessing cozy pubs are busier when it’s cold and snowy. But what about a foggy summer evening?

On a recent one of those, my isolation mate and I decided to get Indian takeout. The weather had something to do with it. On a sunnier day, I’d be more inclined to opt for sushi. (My general pandemic takeout rule has been to stick with cuisines I can’t make myself, or at least not nearly as well.)

Wary of the closed street and parklet situation in downtown Portland, I decided to order from Taj near the Maine Mall in South Portland, where parking wouldn’t be a problem. In pre-COVID times, I’d tend to think of Taj when in the mood to gorge on its daily lunch buffet, but I’ve always enjoyed the food and figured it would be just as good to go.

Fresh off an episode of Netflix culinary travel show “Ugly Delicious” about the under-appreciated diversity of food from India, I was feeling inspired – or perhaps shamed – and decided to diverge from my go-to dishes and try something new. The Chef’s Special Green Chicken ($12.99) seemed like a good choice. It was already deemed “special,” and I love most anything green.

The description, however, left me with uncertainty: “Finely Copped Hibiscus Sabadriffa (Gongura), edible plant from South India cooked with chicken in sauce.” I had no idea what that would taste like and “in sauce” left a lot to the imagination. But you can’t discover a new favorite dish if you don’t take a chance. (Unless, of course, there’s a buffet, but who knows if those will ever return.)

We also got Chicken Vindal (“tender cubes of chicken & potatoes in delicious gravy with a distinctive coriander and cumin flavor,” $11.99). I wanted to try the Masala Dosa (a crepe filled with potatoes, onions and hot chutney) as an appetizer, but they don’t make them on the weekend, so I settled for two samosas ($1.99 each).


The samosas from Taj are top notch. Photo by Leslie Bridgers

I ordered over the phone and could – and should – have paid that way too, but was hoping to pick out an Indian beer from the cooler when I got there. Alas, they had sold out of the big bottles of Taj Mahal, and none of the Maine craft brew cans sounded appealing enough to pay for the mark-up. Since my order was not among the bags sitting on the tables inside waiting to be picked up – I was early – I was asked to return to my car where my food would be delivered when it was ready.

Taj is only open for takeout, which means its staff and space are entirely dedicated to making that process as efficient as possible. I watched as a several other customers went through the same motions as I did, walking into the restaurant, returning to their cars and receiving their orders through their windows. The 45-minute wait time and steady stream of cars made me wonder if others had the same weather-driven inclination or it was just a typical Friday night. The smiles on customers’ faces interacting with the staff indicated a level of familiarity, and considering the seamlessness of its takeout system, I wouldn’t be surprised if the restaurant had a lot of return customers.

My order came to the car right on time, and since I hadn’t paid over the phone (or online, another option), a staff member brought the credit card machine out to me too, which I thought was a nice service. When the tip option came up, he shielded the screen so he couldn’t see what I entered, which I also appreciated – and earned him a bigger tip as a result.

Based on the pickup experience alone, I decided Taj would now be my go-to for Indian takeout. Fortunately, the food was good too. The samosas were the best I remember having, crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside and not at all greasy. The drive home didn’t seem to affect them at all. The Chicken Vindal, ordered hot, was too spicy for me to have more than a bite, but that one was perfectly flavorful. My medium Green Chicken was pretty hot too. I’d probably order it mild next time, but I definitely would order it again.

I was surprised that the dish was not green overall, but a brown color similar to the Vindal with the green plant leaves mixed throughout. The plant didn’t have a flavor strong enough to stand out above the sauce, but I found the dish as enjoyable as any of my safe orders, like Chicken Korma or Tikka Masala. Maybe instead of ordering Green Chicken again, I should take my chance on something completely new.

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