Like all types of restaurants, Indian restaurants can vary in quality from Michelin star-caliber to something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. While there are always telltale signs that can indicate the quality of a restaurant — how many people are dining there, how clean it is, etc. — when it comes to Indian restaurants, there’s one tool you should always look for, or call in advance to ask if it has, however: a tandoor oven.
The tandoor oven isn’t just the most important tool in an Indian restaurant’s kitchen, it’s the most important tool in all of Indian cuisine. Tandoors are cylindrical clay (or nowadays, metal) ovens that are fired with either wood or charcoal and can reach temperatures in excess of 900 degrees F. If a restaurant has a tandoor, that means that the staff is making the tandoor-based dishes in the traditional way. Naan is made by pressing dough to the sides of the tandoor and letting it puff up. Tandoori chicken is made by marinating the chicken and hanging it inside a tandoor to cook. Chicken tikka is made by placing marinated chunks of chicken on skewers and cooking them in a tandoor; when a tandoor is used, many other meat-based dishes are cooked using it as well. Non-fried samosas can be baked in the tandoor.
Tandoor-baked meat takes on a slight char and deep flavor from the tandoor, which can be approximated but never equaled by grilling. And if you’ve ever had tandoor-baked naan, you’ll know that naan that doesn’t come from a tandoor more resembles pita than anything else.
Investing in a tandoor doesn’t just mean that the restaurant’s owner wants to cook some menu items with it. It means that he or she cares about preparing Indian food the right way, without shortcuts, and that the restaurant is probably worthy of your business.