Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
While contentedly lazing in pad Thai–induced food comas, my friends and I always ask each other which ethnicity we would want to be for its food alone. Masala Jack's in Cotati, a self-described "original ol' Indian curry house" that hails from Glasgow, Scotland, gives me no reason to wish for anything other than my original ol' Indian roots.
Having been taught to make a perfect roti (tortillas for the East Asian set) at age 12, Indian cuisine is something I am picky about. I took my mom, whose love of hot and spicy foods verges on the extreme.
After being seated by a smiling waitress with colorful and jangling bangles adorning her wrists, I ordered a mango lassi ($1.95), a creamy yogurt drink. These can be dangerously sweet or too thick, but this was just right. I felt none of the usual guilt I feel after finishing one of these caloric bombs. Mom got right to the appetizers. The starters alone are not only extensive but ridiculously cheap, and it's tempting to order the entire dinner off the list. We settled on the palak pakora ($3.95), doughy spinach and cheese bites, and bhel puri ($3.95), a classic street food that is rarely seen on a menu. The pakora are a deep-fried and crunchy delight, and the accompanying mint chutney is hot like it's supposed to be. The bhel puri, a dish of fried pieces of vermicelli, puffed rice and tamarind daal, is the perfect kicky appetizer.
As I was admiring the colorful prints of elephants and camels on the walls and taking a quick look at the campy Bollywood music videos that played on a single TV screen, an old friend of mine caught me on his way out and recommended the mesquite eggplant (benghan bharta, $5.95). It was by far the calmest dish of the night; complementing the fluffy and buttery naan ($1.95), it was subtly spiced and tasted of tomatoes, which gave my by now pleasantly flaming palate a little break.
Seeing my mother's love for chutneys, the waitress brought out complimentary plates of both fresh mango chutney and lotus root achar. I'm not usually one for chutney, especially the sweet mango variety, but Masala Jack's creation completely charmed me.
The piece de resistance of the night was the tandoori machi ($9.95), fish cooked with a spicy coating, which we split. My nose started to run almost instantly, which Mom says is the sign of great Indian food.
After much deliberation, dessert was the gajar halwa ($1.95), a carrot based dish with cashews and cardamom and gulab jamun ($1.95), a doughy ball in a sugar syrup flavored with cardamom seeds and rosewater, which was offered hot or cold (tip: always get it hot). Gulab jamun can run very sweet, but Masala Jack's hit the middle mark with ease—not too heavy and just enough for a serving.
The final bill came to about $40, and we were stunned. The food was top-notch, and we had a whole bag's worth of leftovers to boot, all for the price of an appetizer at Cyrus! I briefly considered transferring to Sonoma State University to be close to this gem of a restaurant.
The next time I've eaten too much pad Thai and can't seem to lift my head and my friend asks me "If it was just for the food?" I'll say Indian, thanks to Masala Jack's.
Masala Jack's, 7981 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati. Open daily, 11:30am to 9pm. 707.795.2251.
Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.