INDIA PALACE (257 Queen West, at Duncan, 416-593-7272) Complete meals for $25 per person (lunches $18), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $10/buffet $8.95. Open for daily lunch buffet 11:30 am to 3:30 pm, à la carte menu till 11 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
LITTLE INDIA (255 Queen West, at Duncan, 416-205-9836) Complete meals for $25 per person (lunches $18), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $10/buffet $8.95. Open for daily lunch buffet 11:30 am to 3:30 pm, à la carte menu till 10:30 pm. Licensed. Access: half-step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Queen West at Mccaul must surely be the epicentre of downtown Toronto's all-you-can-eat scene. Not only can you stuff yourself for 13 bucks at Korean Grill House (214 Queen West, at Duncan, 416-263-9850) with as much ox tongue as you can possibly stomach, but you also have the option of pigging out at four different north Indian buffets on the same block.
Around since the 80s, Babur (273 Queen West, at Duncan, 416-599-7720) is the oldest of the bunch. It's also the most formal and expensive, its AYCE lunchtime feast setting back its clientele a princely $10.95 per head. Trimurti (265 Queen West, at Duncan, 416-645-0286) packs them in at noon as well, its far superior spread going for $2 less.
A few doors east, Little India and India Palace sit cheek by jowl. Although they look similar and their menus are virtual carbon copies of each other, nine-year-old Little India is consistently the busiest on the strip. Meanwhile, relative newcomer India Palace always seems to be empty.
To find out why, I've enlisted the cast-iron guts of my regular culinary crew to scarf the pair's $8.95 Subcontinental smorgasbords back to back. Later, we'll order identical takeout and examine the results back at the NOW Test Kitchen. Pass the bicarb!
Little India looks very much like a generic Indo eatery. With industrial carpeting underfoot and ceiling tiles overhead, the narrow storefront is lined with tables double-covered with red over white linens and topped with water goblets, and every table is occupied this Tuesday lunch.
Armed with warm plates, we start with sensible green salad, simple creamy coleslaw and a mango 'n' shredded iceberg salad that's good enough to be on the à la carte lineup. We follow with surprisingly light spinach pakoras, their chickpea batter remarkably grease-free, before moving on to somewhat dry and salty tandoori chicken legs.
Both chicken curry and lamb bhuna feature slow-cooked meat in gently curried gravy, while chana masala and mushroom mattar won't frighten any spice-phobic vegetarian. Rice pulao comes biryani-style, and a steady supply of naan arrives nicely blistered from the oven.
A generous selection of condiments - sweet chutney, lime pickle, coriander sauce - add further layers of flavour. To finish, we knock off an additional plateful of delish gulab jamon fritters in syrup, perfunctory rice pudding and an unusually eggy fruit custard.
Other than the tandoori chicken, the only disappointment has been a rather watery lassi that tastes mostly of mango juice and ice ($2.75).
After an ill-advised and extremely short period as a Greek restaurant, the space that once housed Dinah Koo's popular Tiger Lily morphed into India Palace about a year ago. Despite my earlier suspicions, India Palace does not share a kitchen with its next door neighbour. For the record, Little India is owned by the Sri Lankan Selvarasa family. Palace is presided over by Calcutta-born Niranjan Sarker.
Except for the crowd, India Palace could be Little India's identical twin: beige walls, red and white table coverings, soothing sitars on the soundtrack. Servers are friendly as well.
From a similar steam table set-up, we start with an array of roughage that includes a doppleganger for Little India's mango salad. Of the mains, tandoori chicken is moist and tangy from yogurt, the lamb bhuna sweetly tender. Puréed saag paneer gets garnished with slivered almonds, while aloo gobi finds al dente cauliflower and potato in mild curry. Sizable butterflied shrimp swim in a lovely curried sauce, its accompanying sweet pepper and onion equally firm. In fact, most of Palace's curries taste fresher. Lassis ($3.50) are creamier, too, though plates are cold.
Back at the lab and loaded with takeout, we put the pair's samosas under the microscope. Both are the size of baseballs (both $3.49 for two), deep-fried, flaky and stuffed with peas, diced potato and, in Palace's case, additional carrot. Palace also plates them Thai-style on a bed of shredded lettuce, onion and cucumber.
Little India's chicken pakoras ($5.49) could be the South Asian equivalent of General Tso's chicken - heavily battered and dunked into a Hakka-like dip that's equal parts mango chutney, cayenne and ketchup. India Palace's ($5.95) are lighter, meatier and less fluorescent.
I've never understood the appeal of Butter Chicken, which comes across as little more than cubed chicken in a soupy, nutty sauce akin to Campbell's cream of tomato mixed with cashew paste. Little India's rendition adds sour vinegar to the equation. India Palace's take is far smoother and sweeter.
Beef vindaloo is usually the benchmark of an Indian kitchen's fire power, and Little India's is no exception, thick with ginger and garlic and coated with a ballistic red-chili-stoked sauce. India Palace's vindaloo (all $10.95) has more beef - though it's somewhat drier - and its slow-building heat delivers an even more considerable punch.
Nowhere near as luxe as Dhaba's interpretation, Little India's milky eggplant bharta laced with caramelized onion and bell pepper make a great tapenade. On the other hand, India Palace's pulverized 'plant comes flecked with very meek green chilies.
Both restaurants' translations of mattar paneer (all $7.49) offer an odd combo of dry peas and commercial-tasting cheese in an unctuous tomato gravy. While we've specified that everything ordered from the culinary rivals should be spicy, nothing from either raises more than a slight sweat.
Trying to rectify this, we add liberal splashes of hot sauce to the lot - Little India's "very, very hot sauce" and India Palace's "very hot sauce" respectively. Nothing to light the fire of any pyromaniac, they prove that though some like it hot, most prefer it tepid.