Like its Palo Alto Town & Country Village neighbor Asian Box, Tava Indian Kitchen offers a simplified version of one type of ethnic food prepared to order while you watch. Tava creates an Indian-based meal with your choices -- fresh, fast and affordable. No frills here, but perfect if you have a craving, not much time and want a meal for under 10 bucks.

Tava is a white box of a restaurant with just two four-person tables and some twosomes outside on the sidewalk. Located on a corner spot in the popular shopping center, the place appeals to those seeking takeout, but it's also an easy place to grab a quick bite and eat on your own or meet a friend and sit at a patio table just a few steps away.

When you walk in the door you'll face the menu, which is posted overhead above the ordering counter. Just follow the five steps and you'll have your lunch or dinner.

"Get started" is your chance to choose between a Burroti (described as an Indian burrito), a house baked Roti (whole wheat flatbread), Basmati or brown rice, or a bowl of romaine lettuce. If you go with the Roti, Tava will take a ball of their house-made dough, smash and cook it in a press right before your eyes. It's warm and chewy, a satisfying carbohydrate fix.

Next comes your "base" -- either Tikka, a rich cream-based tomato blend (my favorite) or Daal, the traditional lentil sauce that is filling but less exciting.


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Now you are ready to pick your filling, aka protein. What you pay is based on this choice. Chicken and Paneer are each $6.99, lamb is $7.99. Add $3 if you want the combo that includes Naan (Indian bread) chips and a soda.

Chicken marinated in Tandoori spices is grilled and cut into tiny pieces. On one of my visits, it was just right, the next time the meat was too dry. Pulled lamb is slow-roasted and tender. Paneer (also known as Farmer's Cheese) is one vegetarian option, but to my taste a bit dull. Goan spicy garbanzo beans (chick peas) were my favorite, a flavorful combination of the protein-rich toasted garbanzos in a Thai chili sauce.

Keep going to Step Four for chutney. A yogurt-based sauce dotted with grated cucumber (often known as raita) is the mild version. This is a cooling contrast to the little bit of kick you'll taste in the marinated meats, so if you don't like hot, go with the raita. For a little more bite, try the cilantro chutney. Bright and fresh, it was the perfect complement to my rice bowl.

If you like a bit of heat, go with the hot chutney, but if you really like heat, and I mean a lot of heat, you'll choose the Tava Lava, which will grab your attention. The staff is happy to offer tastes or to put things on the side if you aren't sure which chutney you want.

Last stop is toppings, a simple but healthy addition of chopped romaine lettuce, chopped tomatoes, purple onion, cucumbers and chilies. It adds a cool, crunchy finish.

A side of garlic Naan chips ($2.49) to dip in your choice of chutney is not necessary, since servings are generous, but if you have room, it's easy to share.

Drinks are few, and none alcoholic. Mango Lassi ($2.79) is a thin, sweet smoothie. Chai tea, served hot or cold ($2.49), wasn't my favorite, but the staff graciously offers tastes of everything, so if you aren't sure, ask for a sample. A do-it-yourself soda bar offers the usual for $1.99 each.

Tava serves all its food in compostable bowls and tops with compostable utensils.

Tava Indian Kitchen

Town & Country Village, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
650-321-8282,
www.tavaindian.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Sunday
Types of food: Simple
customized Indian combos
Average meal price:
Under $12 for lunch or
dinner, including a drink.
Good choices: Fresh made Roti, cilantro chutney,
Tikka chicken.
Not recommended: Ask for Roti on the side if you don't want too much "bread," avoid the Tava Lava if you don't like extreme spice.
Attitude: Friendly service.
Amenities: Fast, healthy and fresh ingredients customized by you.
Vegetarian option: Paneer or Goan spicy garbanzo fillings, all toppings are veggie.
Drinks: Chai tea, soda and Mango Lassi smoothies.
Eat in car: You could try it with a full frontal bib.
Next-day edibility: If you want leftovers, separate the lettuce so you can reheat without wilting.
Who goes there: High school students, workers on their lunch hour, parents grabbing takeout.
Credit cards: Yes.
Parking: Free in lot.

Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.