Mela Indian Cuisine, 14113 Trinity Blvd, FW. 817-508-8999. 11:30am-2:30pm and 5pm-10pm daily. All major credit cards accepted.
Google “mela,” and you’ll immediately add to your fledgling Sanskrit vocabulary by grasping its translation as “fair” or “festival.”
And then, when making the smallest dent in Mela Indian Cuisine’s seemingly never-ending menu, you’ll begin to devour the essence of a successful mela: a festival of dishes from the sprawling and varied Northern Indian and Nepalese larder.
“Sprawling” is not hyperbolic, as the Mela menu lists well north of 100 dishes. You may start with a lentil or coconut soup before wandering over to any one of nine vegetable and seven non-veggie appetizers. At this point, you’re but a quarter of the way through a bill of fare that might include shrimp-flavored rice, lamb vindaloo, goat biryani, and then one of nine Himalayan specialties.
What should separate Mela from the garden variety Indian restaurants of Tarrant County is how owner Chinta Mani Baral, the Nepalese native who opened his first Indian-Nepalese restaurant, Fishtail, in Bedford more than a year ago, encourages his customers to appreciate the nuanced differences between Nepal’s cooking and that of Northern India. That often means employing calibrated amounts of cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, and ground chiles – especially in signature curries.
In the six months that Mela has been in its strip-center home, it appears to have won over the locals, many of them office dwellers who flock to Mela’s $11.99 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.
What these patrons have discovered is an airy, open-design restaurant where walls are the coral-saffron hue of a Tibetan monk’s robes and whose paintings appear to have been snagged from an upscale Indian flea market. Its soundtrack comes courtesy of the most exotic YouTube broadcast you’ll ever see: a Nepalese mash-up of MTV and a soap opera set against fields perhaps on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
I postponed the daunting task of distilling Mela’s culinary charms into a handful of dishes by first grabbing the crispy crackers, or papadum. So light, these perforated snacks seemed to levitate into my mouth by way of a detour into a sweet-heat sauce trio of grassy mint, honeyed tamarind, and the mild fire of onion.
Of the two appetizers I ordered – the twin vegetable samosas and the plate full of cubed chicken pakoras – the pakoras were the most irresistible. They’re essentially chicken nuggets on steroids, with their chickpea batter exterior guaranteeing a crackling bite and the marinade of cumin, coriander, black pepper, ginger, and garlic ensuring a juicy interior.
Meanwhile, the vegetable samosas were marred by a slightly chewy exterior, though they housed a pleasingly rustic blend of green peas and potatoes, again accented by coriander, cumin, and green chile.
I can’t get within whistling distance of an Indian restaurant and not sample some kind of lamb concoction, and Mela’s lamb curry satisfied me wonderfully. Cubes of “who needs a knife”-tender lamb bobbed in a curry sauce the chocolate color of a perfectly executed etouffee roux. Built on a base of assiduously cooked down, then grinded, onions, the lamb curry was forged from ginger, garlic, and the customary spices and was so versatile that it found its way into nearly all of Mela’s curry dishes.
The shrimp masala packed more heat than the lamb curry. Along with perfectly cooked shrimp, the masala sauce adroitly balanced its spice cabinet of cinnamon, cardamom seeds, turmeric, and bay leaf, along with an onion and tomato sauce combination, plus the crucial addition of heavy cream for a velvety mouth feel.
Gulab jamun was a dessert that disarmed me with simplicity: They were essentially milk-solid fried balls (the subcontinent’s own doughnut hole) floating in a sugar syrup pond. The ping-pong ball-sized sweets were easily dispatched with a single bite, their accompanying sugar syrup sipped like a mid-meal palate cleanser.
Mela may be a new restaurant, but it still paid attention to service gestures large and small. My water glass was always refilled, and when I requested “mild” spicing on all my dishes, not one of them was delivered with weaponized heat.
Owner Baral confessed nervousness and excitement at the impending opening of his third Indian-Nepalese location – this time in Terre Haute, Indiana. My only reaction was that if he is able to reproduce in the Hoosier state the same balance of quality and care found in Fort Worth, his business might soar higher than some of his native country’s peaks.
Mela Indian Cuisine
Vegetable samosas (2) $4.99
Chicken pakoras $7.99
Lamb curry $13.99
Shrimp masala $14.99
Garlic naan $2.99
Gulab jamun $2.99