by Eric Ginsburg
In the borderlands more than the epicenters, territory has been ceded to monoculture, a corporate wasteland that serves no other function than to extend human existence. But there is a place, a veritable oasis contained in one building, in the hinterlands of Guilford County.
The area in what seems like High Point but is actually Greensboro, not far from the airport and PART station, is a cultural desert where it had been thought that nothing could grow but a Wendy’s, a Pizza Hut/Taco Bell, Bojangles, Fatz and Subway. And indeed there they all are, exuding sameness and nothingness amid several hotels.
But in a few short weeks, one restaurant has proven that this unfortunate acquiescence, this forced but reluctant suburban surrender, is entirely unnecessary.
From afar, it appears dramatic to beat the drum so thunderously to announce the birth of Agni Indian Kitchen & Bar on South Regional Road. But to the people who work in the area, many of them for Timco or other components of the airport’s industrial complex, Agni apparently is nothing short of a miracle.
By 11:40 in the morning, a line cuts through the middle of Agni, a queue waiting for a pass through the lunch-buffet line. In a front corner of the restaurant, three tables are clustered into a nook and piled high with dum biryani chicken, vegetable korma, aloo zucchini and other Indian specialties.
The restaurant, which opened on Sept. 22, could already justify its expansion to seat the eager employees on lunch break, still wearing work nametags and lanyards. At the very least it could knock down a partial wall to open up space allowing diners to pass on both sides of the buffet. Because just a few weeks in, before lunch is even really at full tilt, the line reaches to the very back of the restaurant, the considerable parking lot is full and people just keep walking in the door.
That’s the downside of being a beacon of hope, a drink in the desert. Everyone wants a piece of the action, and they’re hungry enough for it that they’re willing to wait.
“Location, location, location,” one man says to his companion. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Saffron [in Greensboro] this busy.”
A woman about two-thirds of the way into the line says to a coworker, only partially joking, that Agni should bring around drinks to patrons while they wait. There is, in fact, a bar that with enough effort put into it could easily hold its own inside the hotel next door. Soft, colored lights warm the back wall behind bottles of liquor, and a couple men keep seats occupied.
But most everyone is here for the food, which includes a special of goat kadai that comes on the bone and surrounded by an entourage of red and green peppers.
The onion pakora — a fritter that is especially divine when paired with the sweet chutney from a bin near the salad and fruit — could do battle with the French fries at any of the nearby food Goliaths. It is satisfying enough that onion rings, its bastard cousin, will forevermore be subpar.
Given that the onion pakora is more of an appetizer or side, and that the naan, while on top of its game at Agni, can still only hope to win Best Supporting Role, the star of the show is the butter chicken. It’s a classic Indian dish for a reason, the swirl of flavors into a semisweet tour de force that arrives boneless and should be plopped atop of a pile of rice.
It appears that a significant portion of the people who have turned out to wait for a shot at the buffet line could trace their lineage to the Indian subcontinent, a sign Anglos frequently consider to be a harbinger of a restaurant’s authenticity and strength. But everyone here knows, whether the cuisine is their comfort food or their first time at an Indian restaurant, that Agni is an unusual outpost marking the frontier of possibility out here in the sticks.
The food, despite the wait, is worth the distance even for those who don’t work in adjacent complexes, especially considering that Agni is offering 20 percent off food orders through the end of November.
It is not, of course, the only remarkable Indian food in the Triad, though it does rise towards the ranks of Saffron in Greensboro and Golden India in Winston-Salem. What primarily distinguishes it, then, is that the restaurant is a godsend to those nearby and a tremendous victory — however fresh —against a tide of corporate excretion.