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Rheta Johnson: Teri Tandoori and the Christmas visitors

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

TUPELO. -- I carry on a friendly argument with friends who live in big cities like New Orleans and Memphis, and rave about their so-called convenience. 

 

In little Iuka, I can drive the seven miles in from my house, go to the grocery, the post office and the bank, have at least one spontaneous conversation with a friend or an enemy and be home in less than 30 minutes. It doesn't get more convenient than that. 

 

My parry brings up the big-city thrust. "Oh, but we have interesting restaurants," the city dweller will say, smug in the obvious.  

 

I'll admit Iuka's culinary offerings, while good, are somewhat limited. Mostly limited to fried catfish and hamburgers or a dinner invitation to Sue Hall's house. Until recently, we had the wonderful Country Cupboard for the basics and Cafe Memories for the frills, but both restaurants closed almost simultaneously.  

 

And in Iuka, unless you are in the mood for Tex-Mex, ethnic food is off the table. 

 

So imagine the thrill we peasants felt upon discovering that an Indian restaurant -- or two, actually -- had opened in nearby Tupelo. Now, Tupelo is not "nearby" in a few miles sense, but lots closer than Memphis, where you used to have to drive to satisfy a curry craving. 

 

One dark and stormy night after Christmas, a hungry group of us headed to the Shaan India Palace in a former service station near Tupelo. The wind and rain fought us, but eventually we arrived in a parking lot empty of all but mud puddles. We wondered aloud whether we'd made a mistake. 

 

Because we were meeting more friends and still were operating in the penumbra of holiday hope, we bargained on a good time. But we never anticipated a floor show and a feast. 

 

A friendly waitress named Teri met us and readily and cheerfully admitted she knew little about Indian food, only that she liked Raju, the man who cooked it. 

 

It was true. She didn't know naan from Shinola, but her willingness to please overcame any lapse of knowledge. If the waitressing thing and Raju don't work out, Teri can become a stand-up comedian. 

 

I've had lots of Indian food in my life. It's the most affordable way to eat in London. And my oldest friend lives in Fall Church, Va., which boasts one of the best Indian restaurants in the area. 

 

But I have never tasted any better than that night in the humble setting on the outskirts of Elvis' birthplace. If the King had made a habit of mulligatawny soup, he might still be with us. 

 

After a glass-smashing good meal, Teri brought the owner out to meet his rowdy but happy customers. Jagdish Chanel thanked us for braving the elements and swelling the crowd.  

 

By then we were having our photos snapped with Teri and the gang, planning our next visit and wondering why on earth anyone would put up with the chaos of the city when you can drive two hours in sideways rain and get the same spicy thing.

 

 

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