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story.lead_photo.caption The Boneless Chicken Biryani at Bawarchi Biryanis Indian Cuisine comes in an oval bowl that conceals just how big the portion is. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison

There have been at least four Indian restaurants over a dozen years or so on the east side of the Market Place Shopping Center on North Rodney Parham Road.

Flavor of India, which went under in the spring of 2017, was the most recent, and offered, at least initially, some different options, including a dozen and a half South Asian dishes that had not been previously available in any of the area's present or past Indian restaurants, and another "novelty" for this market: chaat, Indian street food. It didn't last; new ownership took over and made the menu more conventional. That didn't help it survive any longer than its predecessors, Amruth, Kebab & Curry and Curry in a Hurry — all worthy enterprises, but which failed to last more than a couple of dozen months. That's likely in large part to the proximity of successful powerhouse competitor Taj Mahal, just half a block away on Market Street.

Bawarchi Biryanis Indian Cuisine

Address: Market Place Shopping Center, 11121 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Cuisine: Indian

Alcoholic beverages: No

Take out: Yes

Wheelchair access: Yes

Credit cards:

(501) 379-9973

In addition, west Little Rock in general experienced an Indian restaurant explosion in 2018, including, just along the Rodney Parham corridor, Banana Leaf — A South Indian Kitchen (inside Asian Groceries, in the Ashley Square Shopping Center) and Mehfil Indo-Pak Cuisine (in the former Dixie Cafe in the Village at Pleasant Valley), plus Saffron up a ways on Cantrell Road.

Well, we can certainly give a big thumbs up to this latest entrant, Bawarchi Biryanis Indian Cuisine. That it's a franchise of a Plano, Texas-based chain may help. The food is good; there are some unusual vegetarian and non-vegetarian menu offerings in addition to a dozen or so varieties of biryani, basmati rice dishes with marinated meat or vegetables. There's chicken but no beef or pork, consistent with South Asian religious preferences, and plenty of goat dishes but no lamb. The customer base is predominantly South Asian, which is as good a recommendation as we can think of.

It's pleasant inside — they've put money into the decor: Solid dark wooden tables, perhaps a bit too close together, with wooden chairs that practically glide over the gray-blonde-wood floors; those contrast nicely with the dark blue-painted walls toward the rear of the dining room. Up front, the walls have a wavy white textured surface above dark-wood wainscotting.

Lighting around the raised portion of the coffered ceiling changes colors — alternating blue, green, red, yellow, pink, purple, aqua/turquoise and orange (which explains in part why some of the pictures we took appeared to be oddly colored). A huge TV on the back dining room wall shows sexy Bollywood-style Indian music videos, for which the volume has been turned way down so customers can hear the music if they strain but otherwise don't have to listen to it. (Thanks.)

The online version of the menu is better in terms of descriptive material, so we recommend checking it out before you go, since the laminated physical menus in the restaurant are rather short in that department. If, for example, you don't already know just what Vijayawada Spl Chicken Biryani (BL) is, neither version of the menu will be any help, so you're going to have to ask a member of the very friendly, very helpful staff. Although we didn't quite catch or entirely understand some of the explanations we got. Same if you want to know which dishes can be flexibly spiced and which come as they are. (Another thing to ask: How the name of the restaurant is pronounced. It's Ba-WAHR-chee.)

We played it safe on the first visit. Intrepid Companion went with a standard dish, Chicken Tikka Masala ($12.99), grilled white-meat chicken chunks in tomato-cream sauce. You can choose your spice level on a 1-10 scale; she went with a medium 5, which was enough to give it a light kick but didn't broil our tongues. It was a larger portion than it looked, and adding in the small bowl of white basmati rice made it a sizable meal.

We also stayed safe, or at least fairly safe, with the Boneless Chicken Biryani ($12.99), which comes in an ovoid bowl. It's a huge portion of yellow, white and brown basmati rice tossed with spices and marinated boneless dark-meat chicken, garnished with a little bit more chicken, sliced purple onion, a sprig of cilantro, a lime wedge and half a hard-boiled egg. It doesn't come with a spice scale; you get it spiced as it's spiced, which in this case was pleasantly spicy without ever getting unpleasantly hot. (Other biryani dishes come out spicier, according to our server. Since the menu doesn't specify, you'd be wise to ask.) It does come with two kinds of chutney — a liquidy brown mirchi ka salan, made from curried chile peppers and peanuts, and a yogurt-based raitha, both traditional accompaniments to the Hyderabadi dish. (Be aware that the meat in many versions of biryani has bones. If it doesn't say "boneless," it would be a good idea to ask.)

Did we mention it was a huge portion? There was a lot more food in that bowl than initially met the eye. We ended up taking nearly two-thirds of our lunch portion home and, after making a valiant attack on the cold leftovers while picking the residual chicken chunks out of it, we still had leftover rice. (Two, or even three, meals, for $12.99 is a pretty darn good deal.)

Gallery: Bawarchi Biryanis

Chicken 555 ($10.99) is listed as an appetizer, but it's plenty large enough for a small entree, deep-fried chicken chunks in a "special sauce" — it's a nice, vivid orange — topped with crushed cashews. We enjoyed it, but the medium 5 that was adequately spicy for the tikka masala was for this dish a bit too spicy.

We also went with an actual, familiar appetizer, Samosa ($4.99), a pair of conical fried-dough dumplings filled with minced potatoes and peas and served with a small lake of a zippy mint-garlic chutney and a dollop of tamarind. These were delicious and exceedingly filling.

Unlike most area Indian restaurants, Bawarchi does not do a lunch buffet. Nor do you get complimentary papadam (crisp bread made from lentil flour) or naan (the soft, pita-like Indian flatbread). The naan is, however, a good investment — our plain naan ($1.99) was fresh and soft and tasty, and we enjoyed our mildly garlicky garlic naan ($2.99). A $2.99 mango lassi is a worthwhile beverage investment; ours was tarter and less sweet than most we've tried, and the yogurt base is an anodyne to the spice-fire.

The chain's online menu lists dosas, thin, crisp-edged Indian crepes (they were on the original menu at Flavor of India and are currently available down the street at Banana Leaf), but, disappointingly, we didn't see them on the menu here. Surprise! They do make them and a server offered us one to try out of the blue, accompanied by two dips, a coconut-garlic chutney and a sort of lentil soup — and didn't charge us for it. We were told they should be available on the menu starting this week.

A word to the wise on taking Bawarchi leftovers home: You scoop the food into the to-go container yourself, so it's easy to make a mess. And speaking of messes, do not put the liquidy brown mirchi ka salan loose into the foam container. And do ask for a plastic bag — you're going to need it to keep the mirchi ka salan, once it spills out of the foam container, from getting all over your clothing and car.

Weekend on 06/20/2019

Print Headline: RESTAURANT REVIEW: Little Rock's Bawarchi Biryanis a contender for Indian cuisine

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