Masala Express opened over the winter holidays, in a quiet strip mall in Arlington’s Lyon Park, and has since been bringing together delivery and take-away convenience with delicious Indian cuisine to those who happen upon its unassuming location.
The restaurant is small, and has short of a dozen spots to sit for customers waiting to pick up carry-out orders and diners looking to stay for a quick bite to eat. Orders are placed at the counter, from a menu that is brief, but still encompasses the favorite dishes and flavors of Indian cuisine. A Vegetable Samosa ($1.50), a turnover stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas, can start the meal. The samosas can be ordered on their own, or with a helping of chole ($2.75) which blankets the crisp-shelled pastry with spicy chickpea curry. The heat of the samosa and the heat of the curry make for a comforting, constant heat, accented by a dab of tart and sweet tamarind chutney or a kick from bright, hot green chutney.
A few tandoori dishes – like a half or full Tandoori Chicken ($7.99 and $12.99) – and mixed rice dishes are included, but entrees of sauce-laden chicken, lamb, fish, and vegetables occupy much of the menu.
The Chicken Tikka Masala ($8.99), among the Chicken Specialties, is a rustic dish with earthy flavors. The rich spiced tomato sauce is chunky with big pieces of translucent onion, slices of green pepper, and bits of cilantro, all of which coat tender pieces of chicken.
Only one dish is listed among the restaurant’s Seafood Specialties, the Fish Curry Goan ($8.95), and one taste reveals why no others are needed. The hunks of tilapia hold their shape in the heavy burnt-orange sauce, but are tender at the tap of a fork. The sauce balances red chili heat with tamarind sweetness, and cumin and coriander seeds add to its complex taste. It’s a powerful, flavorful sauce, but still the taste of the tilapia comes through.
A good number of vegetarian entrees, seven in all, make cheese, beans, and vegetables their focus. The cheese in the Shahi Paneer ($8.95) is homemade, and has a great texture – soft, and just a little chewy. But a lasting impression is made by the sauce, which packs a potent tomato sweetness.
All of the curries cost less than $10, and with an order comes a sizeable portion of the dish in a plastic bowl. Ample basmati rice is also included, and bread can be ordered for an additional cost. The Tandoori Naan ($1.50), a large round piece of freshly baked bread, is served quartered. The small pieces are charred from cooking, but soft and buttery, ready to be wrapped around pieces of meat or gather up chunky sauce.
Take-away food doesn’t have the best reputation. Fancy plating and restaurant ambiance can go a long way toward creating an enjoyable dining experience, but delicious food is still delicious food no matter how it’s served. Plastic bowls and forks may be the Masala Express accoutrements, but they’re serving quality Indian cuisine.
Masala Express is located at 2622-A N. Pershing Drive, Arlington. For more information, call 703-567-1067 or visit masalaexpress2622.com. Restaurant hours are Monday – Thursday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Friday – Saturday: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. and Sunday: Noon – 8 p.m.