KING PALACE (105 Sherbourne, at Richmond East, 416-306-1888) Complete meals for $12 per person, including all taxes, tip and $1 bottled water. Average main: $5. Open daily 11 am to 5 am. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
There are some places that even I, a fearless foodie, am afraid to enter. There's that place on St. Clair with the dusty closed Venetian blinds and dead plants in the window. Then there are those dodgy karaoke bars along Dundas. And Centro, of course.
Some may be intimidated by the looks of King Palace, a fluorescent-lit Pakistani and Indian fast food joint in a downtown gas station where cabbies and club kids buy gas and get gas till 5 am every night of the year.
Inside, they'll find typical donut shop decor complete with constantly blaring TV.
You're here for the takeout, so ignore the advertised specials - chicken kebab roll with salad and a can of pop ($3.99) and such - and focus on the unmarked but recognizable curries on the steam table. They're some of the most explosive and inexpensive grub in town ($5 for a 16-ounce styrofoam tub of veggies/$6 for halal meat).
At fancy spots like 93 Harbord and JK Wine Bar they'd call it lamb shank tagine and charge accordingly, but here you get astoundingly tender and fat-free lamb with chickpeas in a thick, meaty tomato gravy spiked with chili oil, curry leaf and slender slips of ginger. As the initial thermonuclear heat fades, it's replaced by an unexpected underlying saltiness. Cubed bones-'n'-all lamb also figures in a sweet Punjabi-style curry that's a distant cousin to a Caribbean roti.
Yellowed with turmeric, big hunks of waxy potato and cauliflower combine in subtle spice - cumin, cardamom, mustard seed - to build to a slow burn. Al dente lentils come garnished with mild pepper pods, while tasty red kidney beans in smooth chickpea-floured gravy get decorated with fiery rings of raw unseeded chilies and fresh coriander stalk.
Pair any of them with a first-rate tandoori chicken leg ($3), deliciously oiled basmati rice (miraculously free of frozen veg at $4 for a large container) and creamy rice pudding ($3), an ambrosia dusted with crushed green pistachios.
Since it doesn't have a tandoor, King Palace's oversized naan ($1) are commercially made thick pita things and merely reheated. Remember the toaster trick once you get home. Similarly nuked, sizable samosas (75 cents each) are deliciously stuffed with nutty diced potato laced with cumin seed and nary a frozen pea or carrot - or corn niblet or green bean - in sight. These greaseless sleeping beauties would really wake up with some killer tamarind sauce, but KP only offers runny yogurt dressing, wimpy Chinese hot sauce and ketchup (!) in packets as sorry counterpoint.