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Trailer Treasure: G'Raj Mahal's food, decor blur line between trailer, restaurant

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

G'Raj Mahal Cafe, 91 Red River St. 480-2255 . Hours: 5 p.m. to 3 a.m., seven days a week.

At G'Raj Mahal Cafe, tucked a block south of Cesar Chavez Street near Red River and Davis streets downtown, chefs Sidney and Anthony Fernandes have created a unique addition to Austin's trailer stable.

Technically, the restaurant, which opened a few weeks ago, is a mobile food truck, but with a half-dozen tables set up under a pavilion and a server taking your order and delivering your food, it's more like an outdoor restaurant. Sheer cloth hanging from the ceiling blows in the wind, strings of white lights illuminate the seating area and candles flicker on the tables.

Giant bike-art sculptures from the Austin Bike Zoo lurk outside the dining space, almost as if they are eyeing the rich, colorful food being brought to the tables.

Austin native Sidney Fernandes, whose husband, Anthony, was born in India and refined his cooking chops at several upscale hotels there, says the design was inspired by Indian weddings and parties. 'I liked the idea of a trailer, but I wanted more of an upscale trailer,' she said. (The name is a play on Taj Mahal and the fact that the site the trailer sits on was a car dealership for many years.)

Inside the decked-out silver bullet of a trailer is a tandoor oven, which is the key to authentic naan and several of the grilled meats like lamb or chicken tikka . In many Indian restaurants in the United States, Sidney Fernandes said, there's this idea that 'Americans like this and Americans don't like that,' but she wanted to include dishes seldom seen on menus in the States like rechard masala ($13), made with fish or shrimp and a fragrant red chili sauce, from her husband's native state of Goa.

She says customers can also expect fresh instead of frozen spinach in the saag paneer , real butter instead of margarine and no food coloring. 'Tandoor doesn't have to be bright red,' she said.

Just a few days before Christmas, I took my parents to G'Raj Mahal and enjoyed classic onion curry with chicken ($11) and malai kofta ($9), or vegetable dumplings simmered in cream sauce, which were bursting with flavor and just enough of a kick. Garlic naan ($2), fresh from the tandoor oven, didn't overpower the entr?es.

You could make a fine (albeit light) meal out of the less-expensive starters, including samosas, breads, pakoras and soup, but the entrees range from $9 to $14, another reminder that you're not at just any old food trailer.

If you forget a bottle of wine or beer (like many mobile food vendors, G'Raj is BYOB), try lassi ($4), chai ($3) or, for a real mash-up of cultures, a Mexican Coke or Topo Chico. We didn't get to try desserts, but I've got my eye on the pistachio-cardamom kulfi and lemon sorbet as soon as the weather warms up.

G'Raj Mahal Cafe is only open for dinner and late-night (5 p.m. to 3 a.m.), but Sidney Fernandes says she hopes to be able to expand the daytime hours in 2010. Delivery is available downtown during their regular operating hours, and catering orders for at least 15 are available from noon to 8 p.m. (Place catering orders 24 hours ahead of time.)