Cheap Eats - Happy meal

Zyka offers a flavorful lesson in Indian fast food

McDonald's serves Indian food. It's true. I saw a promotional menu from London a few weeks ago that advertised vegetable somosas, mango shakes and naan, all with the familiar Golden Arches logo. Apparently it's as big a rush as the yearly McRib campaign here in the States.

While I don't foresee Indian fast food franchises in our future, we Yanks not having the same cultural taste for it as the Brits, the next closest thing has to be Zyka, which can beat anything McDonald's could hope to offer. Zyka offers quick, affordable Indian food that rivals its more pricey and less flavorful counterparts in Atlanta. The name means "taste," and Zyka offers plenty of it.

From its location in front of the Montessori School at Emory, you'll think you're at a church instead of a restaurant. Signs in the windows of classrooms tell you to be quiet during lunch hours because "children are sleeping." You might think you stumbled into the kids' cafeteria on walking through Zyka's front doors, but the long planks with primary colored round seats have been replaced with glossy, laminated wood tables and padded chairs.

Step up to the counter and you'll find menus to peruse, but it requires skill to snatch one away to review at your table. Perhaps they scrimp on menus to keep their prices down: Who ever heard of a plate of naan for $.99? Or the Chicken Tikka going for only $4.99?

The management at Zyka removes frills to maintain the bargain prices in other ways as well. You eat from Styrofoam plates and bowls, and there are no servers; you simply wait for your name to be called and pick up your steaming dish. And water is self-service, via Styrofoam cups.

Try to overlook the low-rent production and concentrate on the food. Chicken 65 ($3.99), Zyka's signature dish, arrives brick red heaped with raw onions, with a choice of tamarind or mint sauces. The boneless chunks of chicken are marinated with ginger, garlic and mild spices and then batter-fried. With both hot and cool flavors, the dish includes green chilies, cilantro and curry leaves. The bright red color of the chicken competes with the glowing green of the mint sauce. You'll wonder if you should be putting this inside your belly, but have faith and try it. The tender chicken is evenly seasoned and is simultaneously spicy and soothing. I've seen a table of hungry folk devour the dish in seconds, but it's inexpensive enough to order another round with no problem.

The Chicken Tikka Masala ($4.99), however, is my favorite and can be found listed on the chalkboard behind the counter. The diced tandoori chicken is cooked in a tangy mixture of tomatoes and onions to create a creamy, orange sauce that coats the morsels. The chicken is succulent and is complemented by a plate of aromatic, long grain Basmati rice, flavored with Spanish saffron, a hint of cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. The naan, flatbread cooked in a clay oven, is great for sopping up the sauce. (It's no Southern cornbread, but it'll do the trick.)

Of a half-dozen items ordered at my table, the only one left untouched until the end was the Nehari ($4.99). The boneless chunks of beef shanks seemed out of place on an Indian menu, but we tried them nonetheless. Simmered with ginger, garlic and other spices to a stew-like consistency, the meat didn't look appetizing as it sat in a pool of spicy grease. Compared to the chicken dishes, the beef flavor was overpowered, not complemented, by the spices.

To cool down the palate you can choose between beverages like the mango lassi ($2.49), a sweet yogurt drink served with ice, or a plain lassi for $1 less. Too sweet for my taste, it definitely eases throbbing taste buds. The mango ice cream ($1.99) is served in a terra cotta pot and tastes a lot like the lassi. The sweet creamy mixture is not as hard as some ice creams and soothes the palate while offering intriguing flavor.

Despite its humble exterior, Zyka offers some of the area's finest Indian cuisine. To paraphrase another fast food chain, they do Indian right.??