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Turning Up the Spice

by Olivia Sielaff & photos by Turner Photography Studio

Two Indian restaurants bring authentic flavor and zest to Hagerstown.

To the uninitiated, Indian cuisine is usually thought of as extremely spicy and over-saturated with curry powder. But that’s a misconception. “It’s not all curry,” says Chef Raj Agarwal at Mango Grill, “and spices doesn’t necessarily mean spicy.”

Indian fare has something for everyone — tender meat, aromatic spices, cooked vegetables, creamy sauces, and even fruity desserts. The assortment of dishes from chicken and lamb to vegetable and seafood is as colorful and flavorful as its rich array of spices. With flavor profiles ranging from hot and spicy to mild and tangy, there’s no shortage of zest, color, and variety here. Best of all, Hagerstown boasts two traditional Indian restaurants with authentic cuisine inviting guests to dive into the delicious flavors of India.

Mango Grill

As owner and chef, Raj is proud of his establishment, and it shows in the creative menu, bright atmosphere, and fresh ingredients at Mango Grill. Opened two years ago, the small restaurant is located in the back of Rosewood Commons on John F. Kennedy Drive, but it packs a big punch for lunch and dinner guests. The interior’s bright yellow walls match the color of the mango lassi — a creamy, yogurt-based drink that helps to cool the hot, spicy palate. Get there during afternoon hours and sample the daily lunch buffet featuring anything from moist chicken tikka masala and lemon rice to golden ragda patties and vegetable samosas. For a sweet treat as you head back to the office, take a few gulab jamuns — deep-fried, light milk balls soaked in honey.

As a third generation chef with global experience at prestigious establishments, Raj says most of what he has learned comes from his upbringing in a culinary environment. At Mango Grill, he’s incorporated his family traditions and recipes into the menu, resulting in “very, very authentic” dishes, he says. The tradition continues with the Goan and Mughlai influence on the menu. Originating in Goa — a western Indian state — Goan recipes incorporate Portuguese elements and are highlighted by ingredients like coconut milk, chilis, and wine vinegar, giving them a unique tartness. But, be warned, they can be very hot. For a more “rich and royal” fare, as Raj says, the Mughlai specialties come from the kitchens of the Mughal emperors. Their 300-year reign brought exotic spices and richly flavored sauces to plates like the shahi kadai chicken with its slow-cooked, tender meat garnished with tomato, onion, and spices.

In addition to holding fast to traditions, Raj insists on having the finest and freshest ingredients. At Mango Grill he only uses freshly ground spices — including curry, which is never powdered — and all of the meats are organic, never frozen, and 100 percent halal and kosher. The menu offers a wide selection of gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan meals, most of which are naturally that way.

He says that owning a restaurant is ten times more work than solely being a chef, but the creativity he has is worth it. “Here I have complete freedom to do exactly what I want or whatever dishes I think will be a best-seller...This is my passion; I enjoy doing this,” he says with a wide grin.

Sitar of India Restaurant

On the other side of town, Sitar of India Restaurant offers a menu full of classic favorites and regional specialties. Pradeep Rawal and Bigya Dhakal are the husband and wife duo who established the restaurant in 2011. After Pradeep spent 10 years in the restaurant business, the “young entrepreneurs,” as Bigya says, brought their knowledge and experience of Indian and South Indian cuisine to the table. They created a space that’s a formal yet relaxed dining environment with large booths for the whole family and a bar at the far end serving wine and beer.

While the menu presents very traditional and common fare, the dishes are anything but average. The couple wanted to offer the most popular but also the best of Indian cuisine. “Ninety-nine percent of our guests love our chicken tikka masala,” Bigya says, “It’s not unique but it’s the most popular dish.” Being tandoori cooked with a pleasantly bright and tangy cream sauce, no wonder it’s so well-liked. Another favorite is the saag paneer — a spinach dish with melted chunks of fresh homemade cheese. Guests looking for a variety can also choose from the daily lunch buffet or order the Sitar vegetarian platter with a condiment tray of raita (cooling yogurt sauce) and spicy and sweet chutneys like mint, onion, and mango.

As the head chef, Pradeep follows the varied and intricate cooking styles of traditional Indian cuisine, ensuring the meals are fresh and made to order. Tandoori is one such old-fashioned method he uses in which meat is cooked in a tandoor — a charcoal-fired clay oven that gives food a juicy and lightly smoky flavor. For a good sampling, order the tandoori mixed grill with a delicious combo of chicken and lamb. Of course, any meal isn’t complete without nan — unleavened bread baked in the tandoor and stuffed with garlic, meats, dried fruits, or potatoes.

Pradeep and Bigya are passionate about serving fresh, healthy food to their customers, as well. On Mondays, Pradeep goes to farmers markets in Washington D.C., and Baltimore to select fresh meats and vegetables. Also, he will customize any order for food allergies and the level of spiciness, from mild to medium, hot, and very hot. Bigya adds, “If somebody doesn’t want the spice, then no spice at all.”

Given the rich spices, authentic menus, and great variety at Mango Grill and Sitar of India, their food continues to be a favorite for hungry guests. But what draws people back most of all is the taste. Bigya says that after getting acquainted with Indian cuisine, “People say, ‘Something is missing in my life, I need to come back and get the Indian food.’”

Indian Cuisine Near You

Mango Grill
11205 John F Kennedy Dr. #201, Hagerstown
240.707.6220
mangogrillhagerstown.com

Hours:
Lunch Buffet
Mon.– Fri.: 11:30 a.m.– 2:30 p.m.
Sat. & Sun.: noon–3 p.m.
Dinner (A La Carte)
Tues.–Thurs.: 5–9 p.m.
Fri. & Sat.: 5– 9:30 p.m.
Sun.: 5–9 p.m.

Sitar Of India
110 Railway Lane, Hagerstown
301.733.8223
sitarofindiamd.com

Hours:
Tues.–Thurs.: 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; 5– 9:30 p.m.
Fri.: 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; 4–10 p.m.
Sat.: noon–3 p.m.; 5–10 p.m.
Sun.: noon–3 p.m.; 4–9 p.m.