It's no secret, at this point, that some of the most uniquely excellent ethnic food can be found in some of the most nondescript suburban strip malls. Low rent, plus access to recent immigrant populations more likely to cluster in suburban apartment complexes than city centers, equals pakoras and dal right next to the pizza-delivery chain.
Emerging lately from this equation is Mirchi, serving some of the very best Indian food in the region in a slightly funky strip mall a little past the turnpike entrance. Due to a quirk of the inside corner location, you enter the dining room through a broad hallway with wood-paneled ceilings and a cushy couch; this unusual, almost ceremonial, approach immediately began to set Mirchi apart from the crowd.
The same geometry decreed that Mirchi's dining-room windows would face the meadow behind the strip, not the parking lot and highway in front of it, a refreshing change of pace. A color scheme of sage green and chili red, accented with a few tastefully chosen artworks on the walls, completed Mirchi's casual, comfortable decor.
The menu looked great, too, and really began to get us excited for the food. While a couple pages hewed to the boilerplate list of Northern Indian restaurant standards, we also saw lots of regional specialties under the heading "Chef's Select," as well as a Southern Indian menu of crepes, pancakes and fritters made with the rice flour and lentils that are that region's staples.
It's become common lately for Indian restaurants to have a chaat — nachos-like street snack — on their appetizer lists, but Mirchi was the first place where we've seen an offering of "chaat of the day." Since chaat is not a fixed recipe, but an almost infinitely flexible category of freshly prepared fast food, this approach makes perfect sense, as well as giving the chef — and clientele — the chance to try various ingredients and combinations. The night we dined, it was papri chaat, a brilliant combination of little puffy fried crackers tossed with bits of tomato, potato and scallion, and served in a cool yogurt sauce spiced up with chilis and drizzled with fruity chutney.
Alongside, Mirchi's Chicken 65 was not only the best version of this dish we've had; it was quite possibly the best chicken appetizer anywhere, ever. Perfectly moist and tender morsels of dark meat were just slightly crispy on their exteriors despite the absence of any coating; they'd been rendered deep vermilion from their flavorful marinade of ginger, cayenne, mustard powder and vinegar.
From the Southern Indian menu, we also tried an idly (a fluffy, steamed cake of rice-and-lentil batter) and a vada, a deep-fried fritter of fermented black lentils. The vada was like the perfect savory doughnut, its tender interior crumb studded with flecks of fresh herbs and encased by a crisp deep-fried, but not greasy, exterior. It was delicious enough to eat without any embellishment. The idly had less of its own flavor, and lent itself to dipping in the coconut chutney and savory vegetable sambar served alongside.
When it came to entrees, Angelique chose chicken, Maharastrian style, on the advice of our knowledgeable server. The boneless chicken was as moist and supple as that in the Chicken 65, served in a thick, boldly spiced, mahogany gravy. An entire cardamom shell, cooked in the basmati rice, infused the fluffy grains with its aromatic, minty essence.
Our other two entrees, muttar paneer and lamb biryani, were classics. The muttar paneer had firm cheese anchoring the creamy sauce and plenty of big, bright peas. The latter was listed on the menu as biryani dum, indicating a technique that incorporates steaming into the process, and it was, far and away, the best biryani we've ever had in a restaurant. The rice grains were fully cooked yet firm, the flavoring was good to begin with but heightened by a deep ochre sauce meant to be poured on top. Best of all, the lamb was simply perfect, rich, moist morsels sufficient to add savor without stealing center stage. A whole hard-boiled egg added further substance. The dish was so good that Jason forgave the chili pepper hiding in the supposedly soothing raita.
Though located in the outer ring of Pittsburgh's metropolitan area, Mirchi is an almost-hidden treasure that every Indian-food lover will be richer for having found.