Saalna is more than just another Indian restaurant and take-out joint; it’s a full-on educational experience in South Indian cuisine. Placed innocuously off of Sam Rayburn Tollway and Coit, in a Plano strip center between a nail salon and one of those 24-hour emergency clinics, the orange letters on Saalna’s exterior boldly stand out. Which contrasts with a rather simple entrance: There is a little cashier booth, a drink cooler and some plain seating against the poured concrete. But do not let this initial response tell you anything about this restaurant.
Once you start looking a little wider, the entire picture comes into focus. Wall sized photos cover every inch of the place that isn’t made of glass. On the side wall, a series of snapshots of everyday life in India show a man handling small mountains of bright spices, a bubbling pan full of gulab jamun and the inner walls of various temples. But the pièce de résistance is the imposing main dining wall. Layered upon it is an incredible, rowdy slice of life from a South Indian bull taming festival called Jallikattu.
Just as it is in South India, the food here is served on banana leaves. Native spices shipped directly from India, halal meats and a caring staff all come together to make the food at Saalna mind-blowingly good. The meats are tender, juicy and flavorful, and because they are spending so much on their spices, they make darn sure you can taste them. You won’t find any tame Tandoori Chicken here, with a sad, thin coating of paprika and turmeric. Instead you’ll be greeted with an impressively thick spice layer yielding a slice of chicken that looks almost like a cross cut of the earth, with the crust being delicious, delicious spices.
“When we started the restaurant, one of the core values was everything is made fresh. If something was overcooked or made wrong, it’s thrown away. We don’t refrigerate or let it sit around,” Saalna partner Alex Raja said, waving his hand in a dismissive manner.
The collection of eight friends and family members that make up the ownership team don’t even seem to like the term manager. “We are all food lovers,” Alex stated. “We aren’t managers, we are just friends and family. We all have day jobs, this is just a passion thing for all of us.”
When they started Saalna almost a year ago, it was just a flash of inspiration. “The real story came around one fine night when we were all hanging around in a restaurant drinking beers, as all good stories do, when we went, ‘Let’s be real about this, let’s do this,’” Alex’s friend, VJ Mani, recalled.
Saalna is bold. Its menu contains some serious firepower as far as native specialties go. Dishes you wouldn’t ever dream of finding on the Indian take-out menu stuck to your fridge have nestled in nicely at Saalna, and the restaurant’s atmosphere inspires creativity in those who aren’t fully familiar with some of the items. The name itself, Saalna, refers to a spicy and flavorful curry with notes of fennel and cinnamon. “Most of our customers know us for our food, but for those unfamiliar, we like to start them with the saalna and parotta,” said VJ.
And just like that, the magic word had been uttered. Parotta. Magical, wonderful parotta. “It’s this big process you’ve gotta follow to make it fresh. It needs a dedicated laborer, you need a dedicated set of ingredients to make it happen,” Alex stated.
For those not in the know about parotta, it is a folded, eggy style flatbread. But what makes it so special is that it is rolled, twisted like a cinnamon bun would be, and then pressed flat, so that when it is cooked in hot butter or ghee, the delicious fats curl up and tuck into the hundreds of secret little folds of the flatbread. It’s like naan’s older, cooler brother. Whether devouring it alone or pairing it with the rich and spicy saalna, it’s as close to ambrosia as one can get.
While the whole menu is worth taking a long look, the Chicken Saalna left me licking the banana leaf clean. The restaurant’s drink selections, including rose milk, mango lassi, nannari sarbath and jigardhada, have a succulently sweet punch to quell the fire when the spices start to come around.
Saalna also offers an all-you-can eat, South Indian style, unlimited lunch buffet served at your table during weekends. It’s a truly unique dining experience.
Saalna took me to a place I’ve never been. It reminded me of a history I’d never had the fortune to learn. And it taught me how good just a simple piece of flatbread can really be.Saalna Website >
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