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Playing Chicken 

It's a constant guessing game as to what is actually available in the kitchen at VILLAGE BBQ, but there's never a lack of chicken tikka.

Just bring me anything but chicken," I told the waiter. It was my third meal at Village BBQ, an Indian-Pakistani restaurant on Rampart Street across from Congo Square. The menu lists 76 numbered items, in categories ranging from "Tandoori" to "Lamb Specials" to "Seafood Specials." Despite my best intentions to try the full range of the menu, I had eaten chicken tikka on each of my past two visits. This time I was resolute -- no chicken tikka.

At night, the brightly lit Village BBQ is a sky-blue box of light amid the dark bars and restaurants on Rampart Street. In the day, finding it feels like searching for Waldo. Village BBQ's sign is blocked by a small crane that has been parked in front of the restaurant for weeks. The gates over the door are often padlocked until moments before noon, and I often mistook the dark restaurant for an empty storefront.

Inside, the decor is as sterile as an operating room. Clear plastic sheets cover the white tablecloths. A random collection of prints, some scenes of India and others of Western Europe, decorate the walls.

I saw glimmers of promise the first time I ate lunch at Village BBQ. The young waiters were enthusiastic, although not very familiar with the food. They had a few favorite dishes, chicken tikka among them, but they couldn't tell me which items hailed from Pakistan and which from India. Staying close to the familiar, I ordered samosas, tandoori chicken, roti wheat bread and navratan korma, described as fresh vegetables in a cream sauce. Soon, the chef emerged to convince me that naan, a bread made with white flour instead of wheat, would be a better choice than roti. Though the reason for the substitution wasn't clear to me, I was in no position to disagree.

The samosas -- balls of peas and potatoes seasoned with a generous amount of whole spices -- were crispy and well fried. The navratan korma had peas, green beans and diced carrots in a dark cream sweetened with dried fruits. The menu described tandoori chicken as chicken legs, so I assumed that the orange, spicy kebabs of chicken breast on my plate must have been chicken tikka. I didn't complain, because the chicken was tasty. I was curious to return and work my way through more of the long menu. Little did I know that I would never encounter the samosas again but that the chicken tikka would be almost impossible to avoid.

I stopped by one Saturday for take-out, hoping to sample some of the weekend specials. I asked for nihari, a Pakistani specialty of beef cooked slowly in ginger and spices. Alas, there was no nihari. They were also out of the delicious samosas, but pakoras, deep-fried vegetable fritters, were available. After much persuasion, I reluctantly agreed to order chicken tikka, but I insisted on a few new items: chicken karahi (chicken sauteed with ginger, tomatoes and spices) and lachcha paratha (wheat bread with milk, butter and mint leaves). Village BBQ had none of the desserts listed on the menu, but the chef enthusiastically recommended an off-menu dessert.

At home, when I unpacked my food, the dessert was nowhere to be found and the lachcha paratha bread had been replaced by naan. I had only been charged for what I received, so maybe there was simply a miscommunication? I did get the chicken karahi, which had a thick gravy heavily flavored with ginger. The chicken tikka, as always, was quite good.

On my final visit, I placed my order and soon the familiar messages from the kitchen began to arrive. They didn't have goat korma. They were out of lamb vindaloo. There was no lamb for the lamb biryani. Even iced tea, we were told, was not available.

We sent the waiter back into the kitchen to find out which of the seven types of biryani, a dish of saffron rice and meat or seafood, could the kitchen prepare. We could hear the chef veto every variety of biryani. Vegetable biryani? No. Goat biryani? No. Lobster biryani? No. There would be no biryani for us.

Unable to face more disappointments, we gave up ordering and told the waiter to let the kitchen choose three dishes for us -- as long as it wasn't chicken. Nearly two hours after we arrived for our weekday lunch, we were served a plate of pureed spinach with potatoes, strips of sweet eggplant with onions and creamy lentils with mustard seeds.

If you're not willing to let the kitchen dictate what you eat, I would suggest ordering from the vegetarian portion of the menu. I was never denied one of my vegetarian choices. If you insist on meat, you can't go wrong with the chicken tikka. I know, because I tried it several times.

click to enlarge VILLAGE BBQ sits along the North Rampart Street row of - bars and other restaurants, just across from Congo - Square. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • VILLAGE BBQ sits along the North Rampart Street row of bars and other restaurants, just across from Congo Square.
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