Chennai Masala has been known for several years as one of the best places in Portland for Indian food.
2088 NW Stucki Avenue
Hillsboro, OR 97124
Indian is one of my favorite cuisines. I love the complexity of flavors, the textures and the Bollywood movies playing in the background. Except the menus at most Indian restaurants seem to come from a template designed 20 years ago. Not so at Chennai Masala. While they offer the typical tandoori chicken or saag alu, the way they do it goes above and beyond the ordinary style.
Deep in the outskirts of Hillsboro, notorious for suburban homes and Intel employees, there lies a small strip mall off 185th and Cornell. This is the heart of Tanasbourne. The squat, one-story strip mall reminds one more of Office Space than the celebrated urban prowess Portland is famous for. SUVs dominate the eight-lane boulevards instead of the usual urban bike/bus chaos Portlandians call home.
I come to Chennai Masala again and again because despite its safe, suburban exterior, this place is the heart and soul of Portland. While it toes the line at being normal, once you experience it, you realize you’re far from Kansas. Chennai Masala doesn’t just make Indian food—they take it to a level that’s hard to find anywhere else.
We parked in the lot across from the Baja Fresh and the Potbelly Sandwich Shop and made our way to a hardwood floored, tame dining area with marble tabletops and plenty of sunlight. The place was nearly packed, even though we arrived on the late side for lunch.
In addition to the Bollywood dancers projected on the wall, distracting us from conversation and meal planning, there was a bevy of modern distractions, too. From the screams of a two-year old at to a phone call from an old friend and a FaceTime from a sister announcing her pregnancy, I felt the chaos of India, with its love of children and technology encapsulated in our mealtime. Among the straight-haired blondes with identical haircuts and shopping bags at their feet, I spied an Indian lady in full traditional dress, head to toe in bright yellow.
The buffet contains typical items, such as samosas and pakoras. Each is made with a level of expertise that highlights the crunchy exterior and the fresh, soft interiors. From there, mileage varies greatly as far as what is featured on their daily-updated buffet. Everything from watery-looking chicken curries to lamb-dotted biryanis prevail. Vegetarian dishes include a rotating array of palak paneer, alu curry, eggplant and okra. The naan is perfectly blistered and slightly chewy, yet crunchy too.
Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu in the far southern region, and a 33-hour drive from New Delhi. This distance must have something to do with the atypical nature of the spicy curries and the thin, crepe-like dosas. I learned never to let my eyes guide me at the buffet because they never give the full story.
For example, I let my eyes guide me on my first run through the buffet, which resulted in a thali-style plate with creamy Chicken Tikka Masala, a bone of tandoori chicken, some pakoras, a helping of chutney and a Navratan Koorma curry. The Tikka Masala was spiked with coriander, a touch of cumin, lemon. The Navrataan Koorma looked like what I would expect from an Indian cart anywhere, though it had a greener hue instead of the more common, fake saffron look. It was even a bit soupier than normal. But as I guided it toward my mouth, I was happily confronted with the warm scent of cardamom, which dominated the other flavors. Cardamom is such an Indian spice, and it is usually reserved for the chai. It was a welcome addition to this dish, albeit entirely unexpected. As my dining partners and I shared our findings, an unassuming chicken curry blew me away. It camouflaged its pungent flavors with potatoes, carrots, chicken in a watery brown sauce. But it had all a bouquet of spices, including a few chili peppers to amp up the heat. I had to go back for more.
That’s when I realized I was in a special place. The Indian restaurants closer to home don’t hold a candle to Chennai Masala. Chennai has been known for several years as one of the best places in Portland for Indian food. Unlike many of these shining stars, their commitment to authentic Indian fare makes this place truly outstanding. Many times, one hears about how a restaurant was great but it has lost its shine over the years. I’ve experienced it myself. But every time I make my pilgrimage to the suburbs, I am rewarded with the classic and the daring dishes at Chennai Masala. If you’re willing to shatter your illusions about Indian food in the Portland area, I recommend a visit this longstanding Indian staple.