You may think you've tasted vindaloo, but if you've only had it in a U.S. Indian restaurant odds are it bore little resemblance to the dish as it's prepared in Goa, where it originated. Many people are under the misapprehension that a vindaloo is nothing more than a very spicy curry, and that's how it's treated by many Indian restaurants: a tired, brown curry, made with a pre-ground spice powder, with a little vinegar and a lot of ground chile added. A true vindaloo should be a deep terracotta red, slightly sweet and sour, very hot-spicy, and made with fresh-ground and chopped spices. As hot as a vindaloo is, when done right the spiciness will not overpower the other flavors in the mix, as it often does in your usual curry joint vindaloo.
The name vindaloo derives from the Portuguese term "vin d'alho," or garlic wine (roughly pronounced "veen dalyoo"). "Vin d'alho" (or, alternately, "vinha d'alho") originally referred to a stew of (or a marinade for) meat, usually pork, and was made with red wine. In the colonies, where wine was less easy to come by, vinegar was substituted, and in India local spices were added (the Portuguese dish was not spicy). Due to a linguistic false cognate, the Goan version came to include potatoes. You see, the word for potato in Hindi is "aloo," and over time Indian cooks came to assume that the "aloo" in vindaloo meant that the dish had to have potatoes. In Goa, where much of the population is Christian (of mixed Indian and Portuguese ancestry), pork is still the meat of choice for vindaloos. When I traveled in India, Goa was the only place where I found pork on restaurant menus. As far as I know, there's no official prohibition against pork in the Hindu religion, and pork is actually quite popular among the Hindu Balinese, so I'm guessing that the absence of pork in Indian cuisine is a result of hundreds of years of Muslim rule.
Every once in a while I'll order a vindaloo in an Indian restaurant, in hopes of finding something at least vaguely reminiscent of the true Goan version. I've been invariably disappointed--until I stumbled into Tadka, that is. Tadka is a tiny restuarant (11 seats) among a strip of tiny restaurants on East 53rd Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. I decided to give the restaurant a try for lunch one day several months ago, and I ordered the lamb vindaloo, without high expectations. When the dish arrived my expectations were elevated. The color was promising. It looked like the vindaloos I had in Goa. And when I tasted it I was amazed. It was true vindaloo, done right. It was spicy, tangy, and had a complex, well-balanced flavor. I could taste and feel the freshness of the spices. After my lunch I called everybody I knew who might care about such things to announce that I'd found the holy grail of New York vindaloos. Tadka also does chicken and shrimp vindaloos, but I haven't tried them, and I think that in the absence of pork (which would be a tall order at an Indian restaurant) lamb is the best meat for a vindaloo.
Tadka is quite a bargain for midtown east. At lunchtime the vindaloo is $8.95 and comes with rice and naan. Dinner is an even better deal, as long as they're featuring their dine-in dinner special. For $14.95 you get your main course (larger than the lunch portion), rice and naan, plus a side vegetable and a side legume of the day (the one time I went for dinner these were matar paneer (peas and fresh cheese) and dal makhani (red beans with black daal)). Most of the other dishes are excellent too, but Tadka reigns supreme as a vindaloo destination. Tadka is a sister restaurant of the much bigger, more lavish, and more expensive Chola, on East 58th, one of the town's top Indian restaurants, so it's really no surprise that the food at this hole-in-the-wall is so good.
Tadka 229 E. 53rd Street (212) 355-9660