To be honest with you, the first time I stepped foot in Indian Twist I felt a little guilty.
Mainly, that's because I'm friends with the previous occupants of the space on Camp Lowell Drive, the Singh family. They ran the Twisted Tandoor food truck that evolved into a brick and mortar. That initial spot was never meant to be, as owner and chef Mukhi died suddenly of a heart attack a week before the grand opening. Years later, Muhki's widow, Roop, took over and opened in the location once occupied by a terrible concept called Relish, but that only lasted a few months due to various complications on all ends of their business spectrum. Then Twisted Tandoor turned into Indian Twist. Then I became quite confused.
Thinking it was just some huckster moving in and using a similar name, I didn't want to visit. But online reviews started to pique my curiosity when I saw nothing but four and five stars across the board. Then one afternoon, with an epic eye roll and indignant sigh, I grudgingly got in the car and drove out for their lunch buffet. Yeah. We'll see about this.
The layout was the same, just different faces behind the line and serving tables. Sure. Nice effort, new guys. Still skeptical, I grabbed a plate and filled it up with what appeared to be bright and exciting looking Indian fare. With a creak from my chair sliding on the floor, I sat down and went for it.
Wow. This food is incredible.
It was the butter chicken that did it for me. Traditionally known as chicken makhani, the dish was supple in texture yet replete with so many levels of flavor, spice and cultivation that my lousy attitude about Indian Twist turned to immediate appreciation. Everything else on my plate was delicious too; the pakoras, samosas, the basmati rice, keema, the saag paneer, enough where I had to get to know the hands behind the food and give them a thankful shake.
Ranbir "Jimmy" Aujla is the chef and owner, with a long history of cooking in kitchens across India and America. Jimmy first started cooking at the age of 12 for a Sikh temple in Bhubaneswar, an ancient city in the eastern state of Odisha, before moving to Seattle in 1996 to help out in his brother's restaurant.
"That restaurant was just too big, too many chefs," says Aujla with a wave of his hand. "Four executive chefs! I then ended up moving to Beaverton, Oregon, cooking in a smaller Indian restaurant. When I moved to Paducah, Kentucky in 2000, I was out of the restaurant business for six years. But I missed it. I still had more to learn."
In 2006, Aujla moved to Palm Springs to cook in an Indian family restaurant called Monsoons. Eventually, Aujla ended up here in Tucson and for four years was looking for a restaurant to call his own.
"I almost bought the old Chad's steakhouse a few blocks away but, oh no," he conveys in mock horror, "much too big and way too old. Then this became available and we moved in."
Fortune was smiling on Jimmy and his crew because they didn't need to change the kitchen or set up much. There was even a tandoor oven installed, which he uses for much more than just naan bread. It is invigorating to see skewers of chicken, beef and lamb going down into the volcanic maw only to return sizzling kabobs of flavor and family inspiration. All his recipes have been handed down for generations, along with Jimmy's own take and technique from cooking in various kitchens for many years, creating a unique approach of regional Indian cuisine.
The garlic cauliflower appetizer ($8.95) is an immediate surprise for the tongue as the cauliflower is deep fried like a fritter and served with a very garlicky and subtly sweet sauce. On a busy night it's advised to be patient when you order the lamb chops ($17.95) because they are cooked to order in the tandoor oven and a prodigious dish such as this needs that extra attention. The chicken tikka masala ($14.95) is near perfect but give Jimmy's refreshing mango chicken ($13.95) a whirl if you need a break from the old standard.
"The name Indian Twist comes from a restaurant in India by the same name," Jimmy informs. "So, the 'twist' in our name is coincidence. But I am happy the people of Tucson are liking what we are doing. Just come in and try our food."