The counter restaurant at 55C East Eighth Street offers convenient, affordable and delicious Indian cuisine to all.
As with many students who live away from home, my comfort food is anything like my family’s kitchen. If i have a hard day i will hit the company Kati Roll – Where Masala hours Where Taco Mahal – for a reminder of my daddy’s chicken tikka masala or my grandmother’s mango lassis. I thought I had exhausted all the affordable Indian restaurants in the Washington Square Park area, but was delighted to learn last week that another quick and casual Indian restaurant is among us: Ambo. When he caught my eye on Google Maps, I scurried from Bobst to East Eighth Street to find him there, shiny and new.
Well, new to me anyway. Ambo opened in December 2019, just months before the pandemic kicked me off campus. The restaurant bills itself as “everyday Indian cuisine“, both in terms of price (bowls start at $ 11) and nutrition (storefront signs tout its health benefits and vegan friendliness). The food is reliable, but what excited me the most was the restaurant’s clean style and counter service model. Every detail of Ambo’s design makes it appealing to a non-Desi consumer without compromising its authenticity.
The attraction begins in the street. Now East Eighth Street doesn’t have a ton of atmosphere, but Ambo has done a commendable job cultivating an aesthetic. Its bright orange outdoor seating area with lush plants keeps you safe from oncoming buses and walking students. Its faux marble tabletops and neon signs are stylish. And the outside is just a glimpse of the colorful food that awaits inside.
Ambo’s structure is akin to Chipotle; you start with a rice bowl base, and as you move down the line you choose between several types of dal (lentils), proteins, vegetables and sauces. It encourages you to try a variety of dishes, which is great whether you know them or not. I ordered paneer tikka masala over white rice with yellow dal, potatoes, kachumber (tomato and cucumber salad) and three different sauces (you get unlimited sauces!). The waiter sprinkled the condiments in an elegant zigzag pattern that accentuated the beautiful colors of the food.
It was far from the best Indian food I’ve had, but it got the job done. The potatoes were filling, the paneer was rich, the kachumber was tangy, and the combination was satisfying. My favorite component was the tikka masala because it is my favorite dish and it was well done; the sauce was creamy and the spices warmed me from the inside.
As a bonus, Ambo offers a free cup of chai with every meal. Yes, you read that right ! And that’s not the sweet stuff from Starbucks, either; you can taste the cardamom and the bitterness of the tea. My only complaint is that my rice got, well, kinda lost in the sauce. A piece of naan or roti would have remedied this, but alas.
Having said that, the food itself is not the reason I am invested in Ambo’s future. No, what makes Ambo stand out to me is that it sells quality Indian food without intimidating those who didn’t grow up eating Indian food. Ambo does what the Chipotle next door doesn’t: balance convenience and integrity.
You don’t have to know what these foods are to feel welcome here, but at the same time, nothing is whitewashed. For example, the South Asian name of each dish is written on the glass with an English explanation underneath, which I found to be both authentic and inviting. A pillar at the end of the counter is painted with the English word “welcome” and translations underneath in what I believe to be Hindi, Urdu and many other South Asian languages. Also, from what I could tell, only Desi people were working and eating there when I walked in which I always read as a sign of authenticity.
Ambo demonstrates the distinction between authenticity and tradition. It’s innovative, but its flavors are the same as the ones I grew up with. Like the invention of chicken tikka masala by 20th century immigrants to the UK, Ambo represents another point in the evolution of a cuisine – and I hope it is a point of sharing and appreciation.
It’s satisfying to see the food I love and crave framed as desirable, contemporary and Instagrammable without compromising its native languages ââor flavors. It makes me optimistic that the food of my culture will continue to become more accessible to larger markets without weakening in the process. This is why Ambo’s slogan, âEveryday Indian Cuisineâ, is great; it’s workable for anyone, anytime.
And you know what? Even if that doesn’t change the world, $ 11 for a hearty bowl of rice right in front of Cantor is still pretty exciting.
A version of this article appears in the electronic edition of Monday, September 13, 2021. Contact Sabrina Choudhary at [emailÂ protected].