Among the things we expat Indians invariably ask about when we get to any destination outside of India is - Does this place have any Indian restaurants? If so - how many? And what kind of food do they serve?
Not all cities are equal. Some have a few Indian restaurants and some have a whole lot to choose from. Of course, the restaurant scene is constantly evolving, growing and Indian students and IT workers play a huge part in that phenomenon here in the USofA where I be located currently.
Besides the quality, the type of Indian restaurants that you encounter in the many cities and towns also vary. For me, I'd say these joints (restaurants) come in 4 Types:
Which is: A restaurant named using a combination of the words "Taj", "India/Indian", "Spice", "Curry", "Palace", "Sitar" and of course "Royal", serving what used to be once called North Indian cuisine but is just some pale, bastardized imitation and reduction of both the palate and the range. They get by serving mostly nostalgia. When you walk in on a weekday for lunch - the buffet has Chicken Tikka Masala, Saag Paneer, various Naan bread types, some Pakoras, and salad with ranch dip on the side.
You look around and there are pictures/potraits of various dead Kings who you've never heard of in your history lessons, and if you strain your ears you'll probably hear some morbid sitar music or instrumental old Hindi cinema music (i.e. Bollywood stuff). You'll also notice that most of the people eating at the restaurant are non-Indian (unless you're in a small college town where the university has a graduate engineering program - in which case you will most definitely seen a smattering of Indian graduate students too - usually the ones who have a scholarship of some sort).
Now there might be places that get those dishes reasonably right. If you're not Indian and you don't have any baseline to compare the dishes to you don't really care as long as the stuff tastes good. But if you are Indian you know that they rarely ever get it right. And that's probably because the owner doesn't care about being authentic because his clientele for the most part isn't you - its people who tell him that they like Indian food except for the spice part of it (Go figure!). Any guesses what he's going to do in the name of customer retention.
Where they at: A small, occasionally miserable, city or town in the US more than a couple of hours from a major US city by road.
Which is: A North Indian restaurant that opened very recently whose menu caters to the Indian palate for the large part - and what's more - the food's almost good! Well - except for the lunch buffets of course which still sucks because thats when the non-Indian office goer who likes the food but not the spice comes by. But coming back to the menu - it actually has a lot more items to choose from and they serve a lot more than nostalgia. Even the Bollywood songs they play are new and not necessarily instrumentals inspired by the 80's.
Where they at: A medium sized city with a few IT establishments and/ or a reasonably large college town nearby. Type 1 places still exist however because the locals have finally gotten used to them. If you're living in just such a place, you may also have recently heard at the local Indian grocery that a South Indian restaurant is going to open up soon in your neighborhood and you're now looking forward to boasting to your Indian friend going to school in Wyoming or Alabama, about this recent development. Which brings us to...
Which is: A decent, recently opened South Indian restaurant serving idli, dosa, utthapam and sambhar. (Note: These are on par quality-wise with Type 2 places but the only reason they are a number higher is because they usually start showing up after Type 2 places do. Let's not get into a North India-South India debate here.)
Where they at: A large city with several IT establishments and a few universities (big and small) around. There are the usual Type 1 places around along with a few Type 2 ones as well. If you live in such a place, you wouldn't want to be caught dead in a Type 1 restaurant ever again unless there's you had to be there because your American friends at work operate under the impression that its a great restaurant and dragged you there for the lunch buffet thinking that you'd be happy to eat over there. You've also realized the pointlessness of explaining to them that an Indian lunch buffet, however inauthentic, is a soporific like no other and you'd much prefer Mediterranean/Mexican/Chinese/Soup&Sandwich for lunch.
Finally, Type 4:
Which is: ...And this is f***ing GOLD, a no-frills, self-service style Indian Fast Food i.e. Street Food restaurants where you're going to get chaat, bhel, vada-pav, pani puri, dahi puri, Indian Chinese and a whole bunch of other stuff the dinosaurs running Type 1 places only remember as distant memories of a past life or have probably never heard of at all.
Where they at: A large city with several IT establishments that has been this way - large and booming - for a while. This place also has Type 1, 2 and 3 places. By now, you'd probably have detected the pattern - the smaller town has only Type 1 restaurants, the medium-sized has Types 1 and 2, a large city has Types 1, 2 and 3. But its only in the really large cities that you're going to find a Type 4. And if you're a new expat - its these Type 4 places that help keep India fresh for you. If you're current location has one of these, then you've got it made bud!
Now if you could just keep your job...