45 Rincon Drive, #104C
Mac and cheese, pizza and top ramen are the stereotypical staples of the average college student’s diet — and no doubt plenty are consumed at California State University, Channel Islands, just as they are at other universities across the U.S. But thanks to the smattering of restaurants at University Glen Town Center, a mall-like complex on the campus’s east side, CSUCI students have more options. The Indian eatery Sitar is one such, with a vaguely fusion menu that seems designed to expand students’ culinary horizons. Surprisingly, it did the same for mine as well.
Like most cafes catering to the university crowd, it’s small and informal, with a decent smoking section outside. There’s no table service, per se — someone gave us menus after we were encouraged to seat ourselves, and asked that we return to the register to order “whenever you’re ready.” Not a complaint; merely an observation. Sitar keeps things casual.
Judging by the rather scant offerings, Sitar keeps it simple as well — probably wise considering the busy clientele with limited time between classes. But it does a lot with what it’s got: Indian standards like samosas and tandoori chicken plus a little room to mix it up. One of those not-so-typical offerings is the spiced lamb burger, which gets rave reviews and has become one of the cafe’s most popular dishes. Arriving late on a Friday just days before the start of the fall session, I was disappointed to find that they were all sold out. The paneer was gone too, and the Stone IPA well was dry. We definitely caught Sitar in a restocking phase.
Curry fries — french-fried potatoes smothered in a spicy curry sauce with diced onion,
bell pepper and mozzarella, all garnished with jalapeños and cilantro
Having said that, I can’t fault what options were available to us. They had four beers on tap, including 21st Amendment and Oskar Blues, plus some decent choices in 22-ounce bottles. The vegetable samosas, with curry, pea and potato filling, were totally fresh and crispy, exactly as one would expect. But the curry fries — french-fried potatoes smothered in a spicy curry sauce with diced onion, bell pepper and mozzarella, all garnished with jalapeños and cilantro — were a revelation, most definitely not your standard Indian fare but perfect for a sultry summer night with an ice-cold brew to wash them down. Same with the pulled-pork sliders, which we “settled” for in lieu of the lamb burger. Coriander, cumin, ginger and other Indian spices complemented the tender pork perfectly. Pub fare, Punjabi -style, was not what I had in mind when I arrived, but Sitar showed me how good that combination can be.
Chicken tikka masala
We gave a few familiar entrees the ol’ college try, too. Chicken tikka masala is always a good dish by which to gauge an Indian restaurant. I’d give Sitar’s a solid B — nice flavor, but more sauce than meat, and the cubes of chicken breast were a healthy choice but lacked the richness I crave. Ditto with the vegetable korma, which was a little on the sweet side and didn’t quite have the usual depth. I’d place the chana masala (garbanzo beans in a savory curry) at the top of the class, though; very earthy, with solid cumin and perfect integrity. I wouldn’t hesitate to order this again.
Chana masala – garbanzo beans in a savory curry
Something I ultimately chose not to order: the intriguing phall curry, known to be one of the hottest curry preparations available. Sitar makes it with ghost peppers, and admits it’s “more pain and sweat than flavor.” For those who choose to take the challenge your rewards are a beer or mango lassi on the house, the glory of getting your picture on the wall, and ample bragging rights. Consider the gauntlet thrown.
Generous portions of naan
Portions are perfect for starving students: very generous, with plenty of naan and rice on the side. Nothing is over $13, and happy-hour prices go all day long for the $4 pints and $3 22-ounce bottles of beer; not too shabby. Due to the casual nature of the restaurant, servers don’t need to go to great lengths, but even so our waiter Reuben was courteous and attentive, and happily poured beer samples and described menu items. If you’re into Bollywood, show up sometime after 6 p.m., when Sitar projects popular hits from the Indian film industry on the wall. Dinner, a movie and cheap craft beer; it worked for me.
CSUCI is far enough out to discourage casual diners, and campus parking is typically spotty — there are only a handful of spaces in University Glen that don’t require permits; be prepared to pay … and hunt. But if you don’t mind a drive, some walking and possibly a wait, interesting things are happening at Sitar. Pop over for a lesson in flavor.