BELGRADE An unassuming strip mall in Belgrade is not where youd expect to find really good Indian food, but one step into Curry Express and your perception will shift.
The aroma of incense and Indian spices fills the air. A super-friendly cashier with a bindi in the middle of her forehead greets you and explains the daily specials. Dishes of beef curry, chicken curry and baigan bharta (roasted eggplant, peas, tomatoes, onions, ginger and garlic) rotate through the serving line.
Raj and Priyanka Singh moved to Belgrade from Alabama this year. Some of their family lived in Montana and like many visitors, they fell in love with the Treasure State and figured out a way to make it home. Their original intent was to open a fine dining Indian restaurant similar to the one they owned in Birmingham. After some thought, they decided instead to create Curry Express, a quick-serve Indian restaurant specializing in North Indian and Tandoori cuisine.
With fine dining comes fine-dining prices, Raj Singh said. We want to have really good food available for a good price.
The open kitchen at Curry Express allows customers to peek in on food preparation, and lets the tempting cooking flavors fill the air. Customers move through the line choosing what they want from behind the counter. There are four booths for eating in, but most people take their food to go. They also offer delivery and catering.
All the food is fresh and authentic. The Singhs grind their own spices and make yogurt, cheese and meatballs from scratch. Theyve chosen the most popular items from their fine-dining experience and focused on serving them in a quick format.
Time is a big factor. Everyone is busy these days, Singh said. Indian food is some of the healthiest food, with its fresh herbs and spices and lack of MSG.
According to Singh, there are 80 spice combinations, and each dish has its own blend in which the spices have to be added in a special order. Theres a science behind Indian cooking, Singh said.
The most popular dishes are the chicken tikka masala with its creamy sauce, fresh tomatoes and exotic spices, and the lamb curry cooked with onions, tomatoes and mild spices. The paneer butter masala homemade cheese with onion, tomato, garlic and fresh herbs rounds out the list of top sellers.
Singhs idea is taking off. Curry Express opened on Oct. 6, and the restaurant is always busy. People rotate through the booths all day, and a steady stream of customers line up at the counter for takeout. Singh said their patrons come from as far as West Yellowstone and Helena on a regular basis, and they sometimes see the same people at lunch and dinner. Thats without doing any advertising beyond their Facebook page.
Weve been really blessed by Belgrade and Bozeman, Singh said.
In fact, his family and community were instrumental in getting the restaurant off the ground. One of his sisters, the friendly cashier, works in the restaurant, and the other works at a bank, but still comes in to help out.
And then there is our church family, Singh said. They are some of our biggest supporters. They just came in and volunteered with cleaning and painting. Our pastor put up the trim. We are so happy to be here and feel like part of the community already.
With the success of their first quick-serve restaurant, the Singhs are already thinking about franchising. They picture Curry Express restaurants throughout the country.
They write on their Facebook page, There is a famous Indian axiom: atithi devo bhava, which means a guest is like God whom we must serve and attend to.
Buoyed by Indian tradition and their Belgrade church family, the Singhs seem to be doing just that.
What: Curry Express
Where: 212 West Main St. suite 3, Belgrade
Hours:Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. – 9p.m.
This story originally appeared in The Great Falls Tribune, December 21, 2013