Walk into Kumar's, a BYOB south Indian restaurant in a Plano strip mall, at 7 p.m. on a weeknight, and you might expect to see rows of empty booths offering plenty of seating all the way to the grass-skirted fresh fruit "juice corner" at the back. Maybe it will look so dead you won't even want to eat here.
Naturally it's likely to be empty: Who eats out on a frigid Monday night in the suburbs in January. Right?
Wrong! By 8:30, the place is hopping – literally. Families have settled into the booths, many with women dressed in silk saris in shades of persimmon or jade, their small children bouncing up on their banquettes to peer over and see who's eating at the next booth, jumping to the beat of Indian pop music.
If you like kids, and fiery hot Tamil-style curries and fragrant biryanis, and if you're a fan of sweet cardamom-and-rosewater-scented drinks served in plastic cups and exuberant music that might even morph into something like Indian heavy metal (played pretty loud!), consider this the best weeknight party in Plano. (If the website is to be believed, the restaurant "gets completely booked out on the weekends.") The most surprising part is that the party starts after many tots would be tucked in.
But really, this place – a delicious draw for North Texas' burgeoning Indian immigrant community – is all about the food.
One night we start with crispy little fried fish – anchovies that have been marinated with ginger, garlic, curry leaves, lemon and more before being fried. A weekend special called nethili fry, it's terrific. So are ulunthu vadai, crisply fried light and savory doughnuts made from lentils and rice, served with an array of chutneys.
Another night, it's mini iddly, tender rice-and-lentil cakes, bathed in sambar – coriander-scented lentil stew. And a banana-leaf-lined plate of savory goat varuval: morsels of bone-in goat cloaked in a panoply of aromatic fried spices.
As at many Indian restaurants, the menu at Kumar's uses the terms mutton and goat interchangeably – and this dish is often called "mutton fry." But, says, co-owner Prem Damodaran, at Kumar's, only goat is used.
It's the star of some of the best dishes, including one I nearly skipped: a bowl of aatu kaal, a deeply flavored and wonderfully soulful goat-bone broth.
Most of the recipes are Damodaran's, ably executed by chef Vijay Kumar. Damodaran's middle name is also Kumar, but the restaurant is named after Kumar Mess, a home-style village restaurant in Damodaran's wife's hometown, Madurai, in India's southernmost state, Tamil Nadu.
An avid home cook from a smaller town in Tamil Nadu, Damodaran came to Dallas 12 years ago as a graduate student in computer science. At Kumar's he showcases the kind of village-style cooking he loved back home, dishes made by cooks who grind their own spices to make curries, rather than using the packaged powders and pastes much more commonly used, even in India, according to Damodaran.
Dishes more familiar to many non-Indian Dallasites, like chicken tikka masala and vindaloo, are consigned to a section near the end of the menu called "the other Indian." ("Those are not Indian," explains Damodaran "those are actually British: It's Indian food that was created by Indian people who went to Britain.")
I skipped those and dipped into curries like a guntur kodi kura, bone-in pieces of chicken in a chile-spiked Andhra-style gravy with beautifully layered flavors. This is not a place where you're likely to be asked how hot you want the food: The curries are prepared the way they're prepared, and sometimes that means wicked hot, as this dish was one night. (Quick, ask for some plain yogurt to cool things down!). Another night, when it was tamer, the dish's rich-yet-tangy charms were amplified.
Another high point was marvelous layered Oor-style parotta bread that came with a light-bodied, coconutty chicken saalna curry.
A few of the dishes missed their marks: pepper prawns whose insane chile heat couldn't mask a dirty aquaculture taste; a curried crab called nandu masala that was gorgeous on the restaurant's website but came to our table pulverized-looking and a bit dried out.
The two goat biryanis I sampled – the dum biryani from the menu and a Dindigul-style thalappakatti special – were fine, but unremarkable. I did try to order chicken biryani, only to be told it would take awhile to prepare.
"That's OK," I said. "We're not in a hurry."
"I mean a while," said our good-natured server. "It'll be ready in two hours."
While I wasn't wild for most of the painfully sweet desserts, I loved payasam, a warm rose-water-scented vermicelli pudding. Next time I'd probably sign off with jigarthanda, an ice cream-topped condensed milk-and-sarsaparilla number listed as a drink.
Damodaran and co-owner Sheik Dawood opened a second Kumar's last summer in Irving, but they have since sold it; a third in Austin is merely a licensee. Meanwhile, they have recently opened a second Plano restaurant, Mai' Da, featuring modern Indian tapas.
Something to check into, for sure. Meanwhile, there's an (apparently very popular) "vaazha ilai saapadu" or "banana-leaf meal" lunch on Saturdays and Sundays, at which servers bring all-you-can-eat food around to the tables where diners eat from 4-foot-square banana leaves, according to Damodaran. Must get there for that. And soon.
Kumar's (3 stars)
Price: $$ (soups $3 to $5; appetizers $6 to $15; main courses $5 to $12; desserts $3 to $5)
Service: Thoughtful, attentive and helpful with the menu without being condescending to non-Indians looking to explore.
Ambience: A sort of dreary-looking midsize dining room that brightens up and comes alive when filled with diners
Noise level: Indian pop music is played rather loudly.
Location: Kumar's, 1301 Custer Road (at West 15th Street), Plano; 469-666-0682
Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to midnight; Saturday noon to 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to midnight; Sunday noon to 3:30 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted, and recommended on Friday and Saturday nights
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: No alcohol; BYOB, no corkage fee
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50