Military Circle and the adjacent Janaf are like the shopping-mall catch basin of Hampton Roads. Seemingly everything, eventually, arrives here to be sold.
But aside from the $4 matinees at Cinemark, the best thing about this part of Norfolk is perhaps also the most unlikely. With the arrival of two new South-Indian restaurants, Military Circle is now the area’s densest and most diverse neighborhood for Indian food.
This is true even though most of Hampton Roads’ Indian community lives nowhere nearby — residing instead in Yorktown or Chesapeake or Virginia Beach.
Within a square mile around Military Circle, there are now six restaurants devoted to the food of the subcontinent, whether India or Nepal or Bangladesh.
You can find vibrant chutneys in a rainbow of colors, biryani rice plates laden with saffron and Christmas spice, the dense-spiced curries of Andhra Pradesh, vibrant Indian street foods and soup dumplings from Nepal.
Here’s a roadmap to subcontinental flavors.
920 N. Military Highway, Norfolk, 757-909-0909, swagathplaza.com. Closed Tuesdays
In Military Circle mall, Swagath Plaza impresses you first with its sheer size. In a hulking space once home to the sprawling skee-ball lanes and pop-a-shots of Chuck E. Cheese, owner Sri Bareda plans this month to open a grocery store, banquet hall and chaat house devoted to bready Indian snack foods.
But first came the restaurant, open since early March. Swagath is a red-walled and cavernous space with three well-stocked buffet tables at lunch and a wall-to-wall mural depicting the hallmarks of India, from temples to peacocks.
Lunch is buffet only, and for $12.99 on weekdays ($14.99 on weekends) you’re offered access to a boggling array of foods from all across India — a more than 30-deep selection of dishes on three tables, around half of which are vegetarian.
The owners are from Andhra Pradesh, a region known for its spice, and you’ll certainly find that here. India’s famous Chicken 65 appetizer — pan-fried chicken bites — comes here dusted redder than a stoplight with peppers, and carries a bite equivalent to Texas chili. The tomato-onion sauce of a North-Indian mutter paneer announces itself with a flush of heat, and the vindaloo curry carries a kick to back up its initial soft creaminess.
But results can vary, as at all buffets. A biryani was unbalanced by clove, and a lemon dal was a bit powdery. The hit rate here is nonetheless much higher than at most spots, and the dishes more diverse.
Each time, the first thing you should do is score items from opposite ends of the buffet and eat them together — pairing a lovely and intensely-flavored array of chutneys from peanut to ginger to cucumber with the fluffy South-Indian idli rice cakes stored at the vegetarian table.
But it’s at dinner that Swagath serves its best dishes, which can be extraordinary in their subtlety and depth.
Look for South-Indian fare like the showy spectacle of a meat-stuffed or masala dosa ($10.99), a wafer-thin folded crepe made of rice and lentil flour. The masala dosa is wonderfully crisp outside, with just enough give on its interior. It arrives bigger than a baby and pregnant with spiced potato filling.
Also look to a heartbreakingly tender and complex gongura chicken ($13.99) plate. Gongura is a slightly tangy green, like lemony little collards, cooked into chicken made with a well-balanced spice.
The restaurant seems to have a particular facility with chicken, which arrives tender and moist — also true on a bone-in Andhra fried chicken, a world of deep herb, earthy spice and warming heat. The chicken at Swagath does not fall off the bone so much as languidly concede to the fork.
5745 E. Virginia Beach Blvd., Norfolk, 757-466-2929. Closed Mondays.
Don’t be fooled by the drive-through lane at this onetime Taco Bell, which has been home in the meantime to kabob houses and soul food restaurants. That’s just the employee parking.
Biryani Hub, which faces Swagath Plaza along Military Circle and opened in the same month, is now a South-Indian spot that has been fashioned into a surprisingly welcoming space — opened by a family who also own a few restaurants named Biryani City in Pennsylvania.
Unsurprisingly, what you want at Biryani Hub is the biryani, served here in the Hyderabadi style — a layering of rice, saffron, onions, earthy clove-and-mace spice, cilantro and proteins from a somewhat gamey bone-in goat and a mild and tender whitefish. As the menu winkingly says, “This is why we will be featured in the Forbes, eventually.”
Whether or not the biryani will get them in the Forbes, their version is an oddly addictive thing: fluffy rice and a lovely balanced spice profile that keeps the fork moving of its own accord.
The biryani is $15 for a generous portion at dinner, but at lunch you’ll also always receive it. For now, lunch consists of a $10-$11 cafeteria-tray-style platter called a thali, with a set menu of meat or vegetarian options. On one visit, the two curry gravies on the thali were a bit thin on flavor, but the fried pepper-chicken appetizer was beautiful junk food. The carrot halwa dessert, meanwhile, was like sweet salad for a picnic.
415 N. Military Highway, 757-942-5611, tamarindnorfolk.com. Closed Mondays
Tucked into a cozy space at the corner of a strip mall, Tamarind is a singular Indian restaurant in these parts, devoted not to the classic British-Indian tikka masalas and curries but to Indian street food.
Nearly always, you will be greeted with effusive warmth by co-owner Tejan Patel, and then invited to order from a chalkboard menu of thali platters or curries alongside an array of bready Indian snacks.
Charu Patel cooks earthy chole maida plates made with chickpeas and fried bread, spice-encrusted uttapam breads, a small array of classic dosas and a puffed-rice and veggie dish called bhel.
The Gobi Manchurian, a sweet-sour-spicy tamarind dish made with fried cauliflower, is a house favorite, as are pea-stuffed lilva kachori dumplings that brim with flavor.
888 N. Military Highway, Norfolk, 757-455-8080, nawabonline.com.
Nawab is likely the oldest Indian restaurant in these parts, a local chain that has expanded from its Military Circle flagship to locations all over Hampton Roads. Owner Ashok Arora is a founder not only of Nawab, but also of the Beard-nominated Lehja in Richmond, which may be one of the best Indian restaurants in the country.
But on a recent lunch visit, the Military Circle Nawab had the unfortunate air of a place that had seen better days — with tepid curries, dry tandoor, cold flatbreads and limp chicken dishes, with a pepper chicken dish a bit like mushy General Tso’s. The best options were a delicate paneer farmer’s cheese dish and a peppery dal that came on like a bowl of chili made with ghee.
5900 E. Virginia Beach Blvd., Norfolk, 757-222-5923, chulonorfolk.com
Hidden in the vast frontage of Janaf, Nepali chef Roshi Karki makes thali platters of suprisingly fresh-tasting spice and low cost — with three-dish dinners for as little as $8.99.
Entrees may include a bright and spicy pork choela stew mixing mustard and Szechuan mala spice, sweet and fried chicken chilly, or a lovely and smoky goat kebab available only on weekends. If there are still any left from the day’s batch, always augment your order with Himalayan momo dumplings: big, brothy, hearty and meaty with sausage.
1011 Kempsville Road, Norfolk, 757-962-1004. Closed Mondays
Just east of Interstate 64, hidden from Virginia Beach Boulevard by a pawn shop and a locksmith, Cilantro feels like the world’s most unlikely discovery: a tiny, counter-service Bangladeshi restaurant serving up heavenly shahi chicken curry.
On Saturdays, you should spring for the biryani, prepared painstakingly for hours— but during the week, that $10 shahi chicken is a delicate, lovely bargain with a dome of saffron-tinged rice, flatbreads and a charming little yogurt salad. The aloo chop appetizer, meanwhile, is like an egg-shaped shepherd’s pie you can dip in spicy tamarind sauce.
Matthew Korfhage, 757-446-2318, email@example.com