Manhattan joke: a part of Murray Hill, along Lexington Avenue in the '20s, is known as Curry Hill because of its profusion of Indian and Pakistani restaurants. Even if you hadn't heard the joke, you would probably recognize the neighborhood's scent: no cuisine I'm aware of has a stronger or clearer olfactory signature. (Backyard barbecuing might deserve an honorable mention.)
We have our own Curry Hill, but it's on Nob Hill, which pretty well mutes the word play, if not the scent. A major curry locus can be found on Jones Street south of Geary Boulevard, where the perfumed air is reminiscent of a spice market. But there is another node not far away, although perhaps to vitiate the pun utterly not on Nob Hill at all. I speak of the corner of Mason and Eddy streets, just a few steps from Union Square, the theater district, and the glamorous Westfield San Francisco Centre, and even fewer steps from the Tenderloin. If you've ever wondered what economic stratification, third world-style, might look like in a big American city, a brief reconnoiter of this largely flat area would give you a pretty good idea.
As for the corner itself: the air is redolent of curry, and for some of us, that means seduction. On one side of the street stands Punjab, wonderfully fragrant but with no table service, while on the other we find Little Delhi, an Indian restaurant that's as comfortable as a pair of well-worn shoes, with table service.
As someone who bears witness to a great many restaurants that seem to have entered the world fully-formed under the godlike guidance of some designer, I warm to a place whose interior isn't designed so much as accreted. Little Delhi has a well-lived-in look; its creamy walls are hung with portraits, tapestries, a map, and a flat-panel screen showing sports. The crowd is equally ad hoc: we noticed several tables full of what appeared to be (non-English-speaking) tourists, several more of possible neighborhood dwellers, including students (CCSF and Academy of Art College have campuses nearby), and a generous smattering of people who could have been of south Asian descent. This last convergence suggests, to me, a degree of authenticity. If people who grow up eating a cuisine later turn up in a restaurant serving the cuisine, there's a reasonable chance the restaurant is turning out creditable versions of the food.
And Little Delhi is doing that at moderate prices. Most of the menu consists of dishes that cost less than $10, and portions are generous. There are plenty of familiar faces in the crowd, including a notably good saag paneer ($7.99) spiced spinach with cubes of white cheese whose mild seasoning let through more spinach flavor than is usual. We were vaguely reminded of the creamed spinach that is a fixture of many a holiday repast in our part of the world.
A preparation I hadn't seen before was badami chicken ($9.99), boneless chunks of tandoori-roasted meat in a curry (and yogurt-thickened?) sauce laced with slivers of pistachio and cashew nuts. It was a near, and crunchy, relation to that lovable stalwart, chicken tikka masala, but what most impressed me was a smokiness in the meat that managed to be heard through the assertive saucing.
Quite similar was lamb tikka masala ($9.99), cubes of tandoori-roasted lamb in another sensuous sauce, this one a bit redder, sweeter, and more tomatoey than its badami cousin, due perhaps to the presence of ketchup. (Ketchup English ketchup in particular plays a central role in the evolution of tikka masala.) Lamb's gaminess stands up to strong saucing, though I caught no hint of smoke here as I had with the chicken.
As is typical at south Asian restaurants, the list of meatless possibilities is extensive, and this is good news for vegetarians, even us flexos.