Sitar Indian Cuisine
500 15th Street, Tuscaloosa, AL 35401
Tuesday-Sumday 11:00-3:00 and 5:00-9:30
If I were to gather opinions about college town dining, I’d be willing to bet I could guess what kind of food comes to mind. Most likely cheap, fast, and greasy food designed to satisfy late-night study break cravings. While Tuscaloosa certainly has several restaurants that fit that bill, it also has a fairly diverse global food scene. This is shown by the fact that there are two Thai restaurants across the street from each other less than half a mile from the University of Alabama campus. In other parts of the city, diners can explore Japanese, Chinese, and Mediterranean restaurants, and even an unassuming Indian restaurant—Sitar.
Curious diners wishing to take advantage of Tuscaloosa’s international food scene can find Sitar on 15th Street, one of the main thoroughfares of town and not far from the University. Based on this location in a busy part of Tuscaloosa, Sitar usually serves a wide clientele. At any time one could walk in and expect to see a student couple on a date, a few professors enjoying an after work meal, or even older couples or families celebrating a birthday.
On first walking into the restaurant, the atmosphere immediately strikes diners as a curious mixture of the strange and the familiar. There is a bar in the center of the dining room, a buffet line against the back wall, and two muted televisions usually set on CNN—all typical American restaurant fixtures. But the smells of foreign spices floating from the kitchen, the twangs and trills of Indian pop music emanating from hidden speakers, and the paintings of palaces and goddesses from a far-away land stir a feeling of curiosity for the unknown. The lighting is dim, especially at dinner, and the waiter lights a small tea candle as he seats guests. The aura of the restaurant is quiet and cozy, inviting diners on the culinary journey to come.
Although Sitar serves a lunch buffet, my most recent trip to the restaurant was for supper, so I ordered from the menu. As my waiter filled my glass with water, I glanced over the many offerings. I immediately noticed that the menu had changed since I last visited. It was updated in a cleaner format and fitted in new plastic covers. Usually a change in the menu indicates an increase in price, but luckily the dishes still remained affordable for my college budget. My eyes settled on the student special, a selection of chicken tikka masala, vegetable korma, and palak paneer served with white rice and naan.
This particular meal is served on a large, silver, four-sectioned platter, and my eyes caught on the vibrant colors of each dish in its section. The bright greens, yellows, and orange of the korma next to the red of the tikka masala and the deep green of the palak paneer drew me in, so I grabbed a piece of naan and began my feast.
My usual method of eating at Sitar is to make a small funnel out of the naan, then stuff this with rice and one of the three offerings. This time I started with the vegetable korma, a mixture of green beans, peas, lima beans, and carrots cooked in a bright yellow sauce. This is the sweetest of the three dishes, but it also comes with a slight kick in the end. The taste of the warm, buttery naan mixes with the crisp, cool vegetables and rice, and the sauce provides a mild heat to bring it all together. But it left me wanting more spice, so I moved to the palak paneer.
Palak paneer is a mixture of cooked spinach with chunks of soft cheese, creamed with a small amount of sauce. It packs the biggest punch of the three, but not to the point of causing distaste. It’s a smoky heat that I usually associate with barbecued meats instead of vegetable dishes, so it is always a nice surprise. Pairing it with the naan and rice helps mute the spice some, so for diners wary of spice I would advise mixing the palak paneer with a solid helping of rice. I sometimes even spoon some of the korma into my naan funnel to pair its sweetness along with the heat of the palak paneer. Occasionally the spinach can be a little runny, but thankfully this was not the case on this visit.
The final dish on my plate was the chicken tikka masala, and this is the offering that will be most familiar to American diners. Large chunks of chicken cooked and drowned in a red sauce, this dish serves as the middle ground on the sweet-spicy spectrum created by the first two. Here I diverted from my naan funnel method and simply mixed some of the rice in the sauce and ate it with my fork. The chicken has a bit of a smoky flavor like the palak paneer, but the sauce tones it down, giving a tangy undertone to the dish. On this particular visit the portion of chicken was a little skimpy, but that only meant that I had plenty of the sauce to mix with extra rice and scoop up with naan
The service, as usual, was impeccable. The restaurant is never particularly crowded, so the waiters are always close at hand to refill drinks or provide assistance in any other way. They are polite and friendly, and usually don’t mind suggesting or explaining dishes. Sometimes they’ll even surprise diners with extra naan, a much appreciated treat when the lunch buffet’s supply runs low. The food can take longer to cook at times, so during the supper hours I would recommend allowing plenty of time for the meal. However, if visiting for lunch during the buffet diners can be in and out as quickly as needed, obviously.
I should mention that the food at Sitar is that it is customizable with regards to preferred level of spice. I usually stick to mild or medium, but those who can take the heat should feel free to ask their server to make it hot or even extra hot. If eating from the lunch buffet, as I suggest all newcomers should, the food is usually served mild to satisfy softer palettes. The buffet usually contains all three of the dishes from the student special platter, in addition to tandoori chicken, red and yellow curries, as well as several other offerings. For first-timers, I suggest starting with the tandoori chicken—chicken legs and thighs baked in a clay oven—and the masala, and working to the curries on a second plate. They also usually serve pakora—fried vegetables, such as onions and eggplant—which I highly recommend.
Overall, this trip to Sitar was enjoyable, and I recommend it to those who want to tap into Tuscaloosa’s global food scene and eat outside of their comfort zones. The prices are reasonable, with the student special set at $12 and the buffet at about the same price. They are open for buffet lunch from 11:00-3:00 and for supper from 5:00-9:30 Tuesday-Sunday. Be sure to note that they are closed all day on Mondays. Therefore, Sitar serves nicely as a weekend treat for adventurous eaters seeking a new dining experience.