A palpable sense of déjà vu overcame me as I made my third (don’t judge) visit to the buffet at Inchin’s Bamboo Garden. I’ve been to this grandiose room, with its stacked-stone fireplace and 30-foot ceilings, before. Was it a steakhouse? A spa? An indoor garden center? What was it? The space is large enough to ride a horse through.
That’s it: Wild Times Cafe! Back in the day, all this ginormity was filled with life-size stuffed animals, an indoor waterfall, foosball tables, and a corner of it was sectioned off into a kiddie fun center with a lot of dinging machines spitting out tickets. It was equal parts Rainforest Cafe, Dave & Buster’s and Chuck E. Cheese.
And now? It’s an Indian Chinese restaurant. Yes, you read that right: Indian Chinese, as in the kind of Chinese food you’d find in India. This culinary subgenre has been around since the early 1900s, when the coastal Hakka people of China fled to India to escape the Opium Wars. A culinary repertoire developed over time — a long list of dishes that Indians diners crave. Think crispy fried appetizers, mounds of noodles and rice, Chinese-style entrees swimming in glossy, ferociously spicy sauces.
Inchin’s Bamboo Garden, part of a multicity chain, shares the former Wild Times Cafe space with a sister establishment, Tadka. A black wall with a door communicating between the two restaurants divides the space in two. Inchin’s Bamboo Garden gets the grand (but often empty) bar and lounge, as well as a sizable dining room that usually bustles with Indian families. Tadka serves straightaway tandoori food and doubles as a banquet hall. (Call first if you want to visit, as it often closes for events.)
How do you attack the pages-long menu at Bamboo Garden? Point. Flip coins. Guess. Just go for it. This serves us well with appetizers. Crispy chili baby corn ($7) brings mini-marshmallow-size plugs of those baby corncobs you’ve eaten in many disreputable Chinese restaurants, but fried! They’re little crunch bombs tossed with onions, chiles and a sheen of sticky/tangy sauce. Our waitress tells us this is a classic dish of the Chinese Indian kitchen.
If fried corn doesn’t sound heart-stopping enough for you, try some fried cheese on for size. Yes, squares of pan-fried paneer ($9) arrive in a glossy wash of ginger/garlic/chili sauce with little squares of bell pepper that are there to ignore. I might be tempted to move this to entree portion of the meal, order a plate of the burnt garlic chili fried basmati rice ($10, and as face-stuffingly good as it sounds) and call it a night.
A dish here or there defaults more Indian than Chinese, such as a fine version of Chicken 65 ($10), nubbins of deep-fried chicken tossed with hot spices, curry leaf and poppy little black cumin seeds.
Entrees can be as much of a dart toss as appetizers. I have learned that you might want to ask for dishes prepared “dry” if you don’t like lots and lots of spicy, shiny sauce. Indian Chinese stir-fries kind of seem like, well, curries.
We take the one fish, one chicken, one lamb approach. Lamb? Yes, in Indian Chinese restaurants the role usually played by pork gets a gamier understudy. I wouldn’t recommend the shredded lamb in chili mustard ($14) if you haven’t bargained for something that tastes like hot-and-sour French’s sauce. Unearthing the “blanched bean sprouts” at the bottom of the bowl adds another level of distress.
But tilapia in creamy chili oil ($14) is pure comfort for spice freaks — pan-seared chunks of fillet in a thick pink sauce with a crescendo burn.
If you are the kind of person who finds ultimate comfort in rich, spicy glop (no shame), then what you really, really want here is the lunch buffet ($9). One side holds a selection of Indian Chinese dishes from the menu: great mounds of Hakka noodles (stir-fried vermicelli), tangy cilantro rice, gobi Manchurian (fried cauliflower in glossy ginger sauce). The other side brings a selection of Indian dishes from Tadka next door: mutter paneer (peas and cheese in curry), dal makhani (creamed black lentils), fried pakoras, goat stew.
As much as you try to keep it all separate on the plate, you will end up with a vague blend of this sauce, those noodles and that hunk of chicken. Fine. Let the turmeric, soy sauce and curry leaf do their battle. Indian Chinese food is all about the thrill of the mush.INCHIN’S BAMBOO GARDEN 11105 State Bridge Road, Alpharetta, 770-622-1445 Food: Indian Chinese specialties from a pages-long menu Service: Nice and efficient, though the room is sometimes understaffed. Best dishes: pan-fried paneer, fish in creamy chili oil, lunch buffet Vegetarian selections: A full half of the menu; this joint is a vegetarian’s dream. Credit cards: all major Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-3:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays Children: Yes, but beware that more of the dishes here are spicy than not. Parking: in an attached lot Reservations: yes Wheelchair access: full Smoking: no Noise level: fine Patio: yes Takeout: yes