3207 Williams Blvd
Kenner, LA 70065
Napoleon's Rating - **/*****
When I first spotted the sign for Tarka and its promise of Indian cuisine on busy Williams Boulevard I was excited to try it out, since we have so very few Indian restaurants in the New Orleans area. But I quickly discovered that while Tarka does indeed trade in Indian food its true specialty and ethnic focus is Pakistani cuisine, a related but significantly different style of cooking. For starters, Tarka serves beef, normally verboten at Indian restaurants, and it uses this in a few special dishes you won't find anywhere else in town. Locking onto the differences between Tarka and our local Indian restaurants is the key to getting the most from a meal here.
This address had been a Chinese restaurant before, and looks like it could be just about any type of business in the future without too much renovation. There isn't much in the way of ambiance. But it's a clean, comfortable room with lots of space. Be aware that the small parking lot can get very cramped.
At lunch, most people eat from the buffet, which is kept reasonably neat. Waitresses bring your drinks and keep everything moving. Dinner is served from the a la carte menu, and here is where all the real specialties are found. Some of these are quite exotic, but the waitresses give accurate descriptions when quizzed and they give helpful menu advice.
Much of the menu resembles the Indian restaurant standard, so a lot of customers start with pakoras and samosas, the doughy turnovers stuffed with vegetables or chicken. A better starter, though, is an order of buttery naan bread or the paratha bread stuffed with minced goat, onions and spices.
You can get the normal array of curries and similar dishes here, like lentil dal or spinach-based saag. These show sturdy spice levels but they tend to be overly oily and lack the structure of the better-made versions. Biryani rice dishes are a safer bet.
Like most such restaurants, you can pick your format (curry, biryani, saag, etc.) and then the type of meat or vegetarian option you want with it. There's a lot of goat on the menu, though of course the unusual item is beef, which reflects the owners' Muslim rather than Hindi heritage.
Beef is put to best use in a pair of traditional Pakistani dishes called nihari and haleem. Nihari is one of Pakistan's national dishes, and at Tarka it is a very spicy stew with lots of ginger and fresh cilantro on top. For haleem, beef and lentils are cooked with shredded wheat to make a nutty-tasting, hearty mix to spoon over rice or sop up with naan bread. These dishes aren't always available, so if you have your heart set on them be sure to call ahead and confirm they're being served that night. They're the most interesting items on the menu and well worth checking out.
Beef also turns up as kabobs roasted in the tandoor oven, along with chicken, shrimp and goat. The tandoor is normally the centerpiece of restaurants like this, though what should be succulent tandoor meats turn out dry and overcooked here too often.
Tarka serves the familiar south Asian desserts like kheer (a rice pudding) and galub jamun (soft, milky dough balls in syrup). I've never developed a craving for these types of sweets, and after a meal with so much naan and basmati rice I usually have no room for them either.
Mango milkshakes and salty lassi yogurt drinks can at least interrupt the heat of the spiciest dishes here, but don't bother asking for a Kingfisher or some other beer. The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol and doesn't permit BYOB either.
The cheap to moderate prices are in line with similar local restaurants. Few entrees are over $10 and the appetizers average $6. The lunch buffet is the typical bargain at $10.
Tarka is an interesting addition to the range of options around town, though the quality of dishes varies far too much to be consistently satisfying. Go for the unusual Pakistani specialties and you'll likely enjoy the place. Otherwise, adjust your expectations to the normal level of our local curry purveyors or just go for the convenience and bargain of the buffet at lunch.