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REVIEW: Cafe Masala Serves Spices that Sing

By Kyle Young

Cafe Masala on Pullman Drive and East Prater Way in Sparks serves Indian, American, and Indian American dishes. A heat scale ranging from one to ten alongside a diverse menu creates an appealing dining experience for nearly any diner.

A Menu As Wide As the Owner’s Smile

The restaurant boasts Indian American fusion appetizers such as the masala hot chicken wings tossed in a special masala sauce and served with ranch.

The Indian specialties on the menu include some classics familiar to the western palate including paneers, masalas, vindaloos and other curries. Also available are biryanis, south Indian dosas, and domestic staples such as burgers, steaks, and fried chicken.

Because the food in India varies greatly by region due to religious influence, historical occupying forces, regional foods available, etc., attempting to identify the origins of various dishes would be foolhardy for someone of my limited knowledge. Suffice to say, I won’t comment on where I think the following dishes hail from specifically.

Proteins available at Cafe Masala include vegetables, chicken, pork, beef, lamb, shrimp and salmon. Owner, Robert Dsouza, seems to forego some culinary traditions associated with Indian cuisine to reach a wider dining audience. For example, I was surprised to see a variety of beef and pork dishes available on the menu.

Why Include Domestic Staples?

Part of me is saddened by the idea that Reno / Sparks restaurants specializing in cuisines originating outside the U.S. feel compelled to include dishes such as burgers, tuna melts and club sandwiches on their menus.

I’m not sure I know why, but some part of me seeks limited exclusivity in a restaurant. I want a restaurant to serve exactly what it wants to serve and not what it feels like it needs to serve to stay in business. I sometimes get the sense that our culture of “everyone gets a trophy” has led people to think that “every restaurant should please every person”. That being said, I think I get it on some level.

Imagine a group of four people walks into Cafe Masala. Three of them are excited to eat dosas, curries and biryanis, but one of them has what we’ll call a ‘nativist palate’. Does the restaurant want to serve dishes that all four people will enjoy? Surely, the answer is yes.

I’ll also grant the possibility that Cafe Masala prizes their chicken Caesar salad as much as their utappa dosa. I didn’t explicitly ask about the subject, so these are just musings and speculations.

A Myriad of Textures and Flavors

My fiancé and I walked into Cafe Masala at 7:45 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. Upon our arrival, we were the only diners there. After about 20 minutes, though, the restaurant quickly filled up with two large groups and another couple.

The Corona Imperialis flower.

The Corona Imperialis flower. Image: Kyle Young.

The restaurant is cozy and welcoming. You wouldn’t guess it by my shoddy photos, but there is some cool art hanging on the walls. I especially liked the depiction of the Corona Imperialis flower.

After briefly speaking with Dsouza, we ordered one of his recommendations, the Indian roast chicken ($10.99), and two selections of our own: Janet’s pork vindaloo ($10.99) and the utappa dosa ($4.99).

The chicken and pork dishes came with rice with an upgrade to naan available for a $1 upcharge. We opted for one serving of rice and one serving of naan.

The first dish to arrive was the utappa dosa, a rice pancake with green chilies, red onion, cilantro and tomatoes. In other restaurants, they describe dosas as more akin to crepes. Now given another lens through which to see the dish, I’d say it’s a little like a crepe and a little like a pancake. The dish is part crispy and part spongy.

It was served with sambar soup and coconut chutney. The vegetable soup was partially blended, creating a creamy texture and deep flavor. It was delicious. The chutney was tart, savory, and pasty. The inclusion of onions and tomatoes made the dosa wonderfully moist. The soft, spongy center juxtaposed with the crispy perimeter of the dosa was wonderful. As the produce cooked inside the dosa, it partially caramelized adding a sweetness to the dish. Although I couldn’t taste any chilies, the cilantro brought the dish home with a welcome herbaceous element. The dish was distinct, beautiful and tasty.

The next dish was the Indian roast chicken. The description on the menu read simply, “Coconut roast chicken.” We ordered the dish with a heat level of 5. As much as I love high-heat dishes, ordering mid-level heat is a good way to test the waters.

Janets pork vindaloo at Cafe Masala.

Janet’s pork vindaloo at Cafe Masala. Image: Kyle Young.

The dish was composed of cubed, roasted chicken with a subtle coconut flavor. Tomatoes added a sweetness to the dish and cilantro again added a nice herbaceous note. My fiancé painted the dish well when she said, “I like the flavor profile. There’s a lot going on, but it’s well-balanced. My mom would never make this, but it seems like something someone’s mom would make. It warms my soul. If I was having a bad day or was sick, this would be good comfort food.”

The final dish was Janet’s pork vindaloo. We ordered this one with a heat level of 6. Dsouza asked us if we were satisfied with the heat in our meals. We said yes, but that we’d order higher heat next time. He soon returned with a side of freshly prepared cashmere chili sauce. This sauce, composed only of ground chili pepper, butter and salt, was amazing. The heat of some chilies seems to mute their flavor. In this case, the full chili flavor shined through while also containing a hearty kick.

The pork vindaloo by itself was great, but it became something spectacular with the addition of the cashmere sauce. The pork was tender and fatty. The dish seemed to include a great diversity of spices. Onions and vinegar added sweet and sour flavors to the dish. A tear of naan with a spoonful of pork and a few drops of the cashmere chili sauce created one of my new favorite things to eat.

Visit Cafe Masala at 1450 E. Prater Way, suite 104 in Sparks. Call in your take-out order at 775-686-6885. They are open Monday through Saturday from 12:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. They are closed on Sundays.

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