Image: Menu as muse.
Last Updated: September 2023
With two relatively inconspicuous locations, Masala Art flies under the radar. Yet, like more than a few neighborhood spots it does deserve broader recognition. The Tenleytown location opened in 2009, when Atul Bhola, the manager at Heritage India, went out on his own with the intent to highlight regional specialties alongside more familiar dishes. What was a surprising hit early on is now a longstanding favorite.
The menu still reflects the original vision. Looking over the menu there are tandoori prepared dishes like the large prawns fired and cracked open. There are tawa dishes prepared on the large pan. Several items are flagged for regional ties. On a recent trip these were the ones that a stood out. Gobhi Mussallam dish of a whole head of cauliflower under a creamy curry comes from northern India, as does Awadhi Dum ke Murg, chicken with cashew and saffron sauce. Both sauces had hints of spice and a touch of creamy sweetness. Though, it can reportedly turn up the heat on a dish like vindaloo if that is what you are looking for.
The bhelpuri has been a mainstay and winner for years. It comes cold in a chickpea cone with a salad of crunchy puffed rice, chickpea vermicelli, peanuts, onion, mango, cilantro and tamarind chutney. The iconic street food of pani puri got a thumbs up from Tom during the take-out era of 2020 (“The crunch of the shell is the first sensation, its crackle a kind of alarm, to alert the palate about the waves of flavor that are about to hit it like a tsunami. Tart. Sweet. Spicy. Herbal. Both stimulating and refreshing, pani puri feels like an antidepressant for when summer turns oppressive.”)
The wine and beer lists are not long and might be called serviceable. The Tenleytown location does not have a bar, but the SW location, added in 2014, was built to have a large bar and robust cocktail program. Service can be a bit slow, but they are in no hurry to flip the table, so take your time.
Other Guidance: They are neighborhood spots. Shorts and T-shirts are not out of place, but neither is the sportsjacket on the elderly man who sat near us. Being Indian, GF and Vegetarians can do well, probably even better than you might expect. Both locations are located at street level.
Washington Post: Tom made a short plug for the new spot in 2014. Carman gave the new location a two-star review, with praise (“The sweet fennel flavor that haunts the edges of the dalchini chakri murg, or chicken in star-anise-and-cinnamon curry, can keep you up at nights, turning its delights over in your head. The exquisite green cardamom curry, which coats the lamb in the elaichi gosht, could make a grown man weep, while the pickled pearl onions in the paneer khatta pyaaz introduce a tart element that somehow resolves to an earthy finish. Brilliant.”), and a couple knocks.
Washingtonian: Cheap Eat 2013
Lori Gardner (Been There Eaten That): From 2013. With a strong rec for the lamb chops and rock salt cilantro naan.