How this modest restaurant serves up some of the finest Indian food here
Anyone who commutes to and from Belfast along the Saintfield Road will be familiar with the Texaco garage near the Ivanhoe Hotel. It's just beyond the automated 50mph speed warning sign as you beat your weary way out of town after a hard day's graft through traffic to head home.
To the uninitiated it looks just like every other suburban, main road garage shop. But this is no ordinary garage.
It is a garden centre, off-licence, post office, McDonald's, carwash, newsagents, bakery, ice-cream parlour, grocery store kind of garage. You can get Hallowe'en outfits and decorations, medication for period pains, fertiliser and a bag of kindling. And on the first floor, above all the vulgar till-ringing, is one of the best, if not the best, Indian restaurant in Northern Ireland — the Khyber Tandoori.
Even before you enter the Khyber you can spot a few oddities. For a start the name over the door is misspelt (Khayber) and there are two other signs; one says ‘Lunchtime Special £6.95’, the other says ‘Special Lunch £6.75’. Nonetheless, and in defiance of any consistent corporate identity, the Khyber has been successfully serving up the same reliable delights ranging from fiery shashliks to mild and tender vegetable masalas here for the last 10 years.
Once you get past the puzzling but otherwise anonymous exterior (new, correctly spelled signs are going up before Christmas) you are greeted by a chandeliered staircase, at the top of which you have a choice. Turn left into the take-away holding area with its ancient telly, sofa and counter or turn right into the ornate yet oddly modern dining room.
Many Indian restaurants are adopting a cooler European interior style with clean lines, lots of browns and mushroom and china grey colours. New-generation restaurants don't play sitar music, although the really westernised ones might have some kind of banghra piping through.
Not the Khyber Tandoori. This is Indian Seventies-style with flowery carpet, a good bit of brass, and startling orange and red sunset landscapes on the walls. Even though design changes are afoot, I suspect the new look won't drag the Khyber further than the early Eighties. And the sitar music will remain firmly in the eight-track.
Even though I mainly go there for takeaways, my longevity is now rewarded with a nod at the counter to come through to the restaurant where there is a more luxurious waiting area usually reserved for diners waiting for their table. More often than not I have a bottle of Tiger here while waiting for the take-away. Which is great because you can people-watch from here without being seen.
Tariq Nabi and his two sons, Johnny and Stephen, have established a reputation among their customers that generates the kind of loyalty and repeat custom only Indian restaurants seem capable of securing. I see the same faces in there all the time.
This is the ultimate test for any restaurant. Is it that good that you'd want to go back? Well, yes, if it's the Khyber. And a straw poll conducted among neighbours would indicate that they don't go there for the view or the surroundings, nor is it down to just the price or the free poppadoms and chutneys.
People know the difference between good and ok Indian food. Tariq is Pakistani and his approach to food is not mainstream, even though his operation is as old-fashioned as avocado bathroom suites.
No pre-bought curry pastes for him. Everything is made the old way with fresh everything by a chef Tariq keeps locked away from the outside world just in case someone else poaches him.
Starters and mains are recognisable from the list of Indian dishes available anywhere else, but the exceptions are truly memorable. Mince samosas are flaky and filled with finely ground lamb that has been mixed with a little garam masala and turmeric and other spices.
The vegetable alternative is more of a mushy mix that has the consistency of compressed peas and is not as interesting, but vegetarians will not be disappointed by the deep-fried pakoras, bhagees and mushroom puri. The spicy chickpea puri comes on a little chapata with onion and tomato and is a heaven-made blur of sharp and soft flavours.
But it's the Khyber's tandoor ovens that provide the real excitement. Here, the lamb and chicken tikka in marinated pieces are hyper-heated to be either eaten on their own or with various hot or mild sauces and rice or naan bread. Volumes are large, so you might want to have a starter followed by a small tandoori mix from the starter menu, which includes pieces of chicken tikka, lamb tikka and a minced lamb kebab.
The best of all Khyber's dishes is the chicken tikka shashlik, which is served in a rich, reduced gravy with mushrooms. It comes with a separate vegetable curry and rice. The flavours are deep and almost wine-like with hints of beef (say the word under your breath).
For the real hit-the-back-of-the-neck hot curry, the madras and vindaloo will not let you down. While these are so high-octane as to be painful for those not anaesthetised by a few pints of lager, the accompanying raita — a minty yoghurt — fairly cools things down. Here's a handy hint: if ever you do eat something that sears the tongue out of your skull and that no amount of raita will soothe, reach for a piece of naan or chapata bread and your mouth will quickly calm down, the flames of chilli fire will subside and you will be able to catch the taste hidden beneath the molten lava.
The Khyber Tandoori is an icon, as significant to Belfast as the Bombay Brasserie is to London.
There is every possible classic Indian dish on the go and if you're lucky enough to be served by Johnny or younger brother Stephen (Tariq always seems stern but he's a pussycat and loves his regulars), you'll be glad that some things are reliable, stable and never change.
Meat samosas £2.95
Vegetable pakoras £2.95
Chicken tikka shashlik £11.50
Lamb madras £7.25
Plain naan £1.95
Boiled rice £1.50
Tiger beer £3.10