Naansense

Where should we order an Indian pizza from tonight, hon?

Seems like every other day I find myself contemplating the question of why I'm still here (in San Francisco, I mean, not on the planet, although there are times ...). Why, I ask, do I force myself to grapple, day after day, with fascist meter maids, gridlocked freeways, overpriced wine lists, persnickety pet owners, $8 ballpark beers, and summer weather that makes me yearn for winters in Milwaukee?

There's so much to bitch and moan about ($8 beers, seriously, and they're not even pints!), even old-school natives like myself are getting tired of defending this cool gray city of love 'ems and leave 'ems.

But then, of course, I consider the alternatives. Where else, after all, could I walk into a grocery store looking to throw together a little dinner salad and be offered 18 varieties of lettuce, none of which is iceberg?

In a country where the most perplexing nightly dining question is often "Chili's or Outback Steakhouse?," I get to enjoy the luxury of debating whose tandoori pizza has a more flavorful saag (spicy puréed spinach) sauce.

It occurs to me that many Americans wouldn't know saag from soggy sweat socks, let alone be able to consider its merits and nuances as a base for the unique amalgamation that is Indian pizza. But here in overcrowded, expensive, fog-infested Friscotown, we not only know the joys of turmeric-seared chicken tikka as a pizza topping, we have the privilege of being picky about it.

Here we reach into the drawer and pull out the ol' pile of takeout menus and ask, "What do you think, honey? Zante's or Raja? Meat or vegetarian?"

And honey answers, "The saag on Zante's was a little thin and not enough garam masala last time. But Raja was so slow and there was a bit too much cheese."

Oh, the agonizing choices we face. Oh, the humanity.

For years, Zante's in the Mission had the lock on the city's tandoori pizza racket, but Raja (500 Haight, 255-6000, www.rajasf.com), with an edgy hipster location in Lower Haight, has slowly been making inroads. To be fair, the two restaurants are owned by the same folks, but it's clear that different chefs are manning the ovens.

For one thing, Raja's naan-style dough is more blistery and not as spongy as Zante's. For another, despite the fact that you sometimes have to wait up to two hours for delivery, Raja's pizza arrives fresh and piping hot.

Then there's the distribution of ingredients. Maybe because of the volume of business, Zante's sometimes gets careless with its toppings, missing key items such as cauliflower and eggplant. Especially cauliflower -- I mean, can you really call yourself authentic Indian pizza without those tantalizing bits of cauliflower simmered in cumin seed and garam masala?

Raja doesn't skimp on the meat, either. Ample chunks of tandoori chicken and lamb, seasoned with ginger, garlic, and turmeric, are generously scattered across the dough, with a healthy sprinkling of green onion, cilantro, and mozzarella cheese to finish it off.

I'm also partial to Raja's saag -- slightly creamy and spread in a thick layer, with just enough chili spice to get your nose running.

Yes, it's a tough row to hoe here in San Fran to be sure, but if I go someplace else, I'll just end up like the rest of the free world -- grumbling about how you can't get a decent onion blossom at Chili's anymore.

 
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