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The New York dosa

india Updated: Dec 20, 2008 16:40 IST
Robbie Whelan

The quest for the best dosa in New York follows a trail of spices and flavours that, oddly enough, doesn’t lead back to the mainland, but to a basement full of devout dadis in Queens...Robbie Whelan gives us a taste...

It must have been about two months ago that I realised just how much I miss dosas. I had gone on a long walk with a friend through Jackson Heights, a densely-populated Indian enclave in the Queens section of New York, and we had stopped for lunch at Delhi Palace, a chintzy restaurant with bad murals on the walls and a bowtie-clad waitstaff, for the $12 (Rs 565) lunch buffets.

Buffets like these are run-of-the-mill: half-day old aloo gobi languishes in stew pots next to neon-coloured chicken tikka. They’re not bad; they’re just not the real deal, and for anyone who has ever lived in India, as I did for half a year in 2006, they leave you wanting something a bit more bona fide.

But then the waiter told us, that as part of our $12, we were entitled to two dosai, and when I ordered them, he brought out two of the most piddling, limpest excuses for dosa imaginable. We dutifully drenched them in thin sambar and flavourless chutney, ate them with attenuated relish, and went on our way.

Eight weeks later I returned to New York on a mission: to find the city’s best dosa. I chose dosai, rather than say, the best bonda or the best dal makhani, simply because they are a quintessential hand-held street food, a yardstick by which you can judge an entire menu. So many Indians I know in America search for them the way Mexican-Americans seek out the best burritos, Trinidadians the best Caribbean roti, French the best crepes.

I selected three areas, all of them epicentres of Indian culture, and perhaps I missed a few in-between purveyors of dosai, but this is, after all, an inexact science. I enlisted three other tasters, met them at a downtown train station, and took the train to Jersey City, where Newark Avenue between Kennedy Boulevard and Tonnelle Avenue has become a vibrant “Little India” for the area’s two lakh Indian-Americans, with Bollywood DVD shops, Hindu temples, and of course restaurants.

Over the course of a very long, very filling day, we would make our way from west to east, from Jersey City to Manhattan to Flushing, Queens, and taste over a dozen dosas. At the end, there was a clear winner, and it came from an unexpected, unassuming kitchen, but overall it was a rewarding experience, if only because it taught us that the art of dosa-making is alive and well, and ever evolving, just as the Indian diaspora in America is.

Newark Avenue: a worthy effort

Newark Avenue does authentic ‘South Indian’, but narry a winner to be found. Our first stop, Dosa Hut, is a Newark Avenue mainstay, serving 32 varieties of dosa, from the plainly dignified Paper Dosa to a fiery Mysore Masala. The piquant Dosa Hut Special Dosa, inventively filled with peppery shredded cabbage, was delightful.

“I’ve never had a dosa quite like this,” one of my friends remarked, tearing into the easily 35-cm-long specimen, which was nearly bursting with filling. The owners, who told me they were Gujarati in origin, were masters of flavour, if not texture — the dosas were reasonably crisp, but nothing remarkable in and of themselves. It was the filling that mattered.

Sri Ganesh Dosa House, a Hyderabadi spot down the street, wielded its spices with considerably less deftness. A Palak Paneer Dosa arrived dry, disappointingly bereft of flavour, and the Pondicherry Masala, while packing a spicy punch with liberal use of green chilli, was similarly bland. The place had the feel of authenticity, though, from the cashier’s henna’d fingernails and the cooler filled with Limca and Thumbs Up to the portraits of Sri Sai Baba on the wall. We washed our meal down with mini-cups of chai, with more taste than the main course, and strolled around the corner to Sapthagiri Taste of India, which smelled like Churchgate-bound train car and looked impressively like a Chennai tea house on the inside.

There, our waiter brought us a very crisp Masala Dosa, shining with a light sheen of oil, but very plain to the tongue at first bite. The sambar, however, was rich and deep-flavoured — easily the best of the walk so far. An added bonus was that they served first-class South Indian filter coffee in metal cups. We rose slowly and waddled our way back to the station for the 20-minute train ride back to Manhattan.

Manhattan: a stepping stone

We had heard of a “Dosa Man” in Washington Square Park, a beautiful public park surrounding by classroom building of New York University, who was famous for slinging creatively-built dosai for the vegan (that’s college talk for fashionably pure veg, non-dairy) student crowd, from a cart labelled NY Dosa. We were worried that he wouldn’t be out on a freezing cold Saturday afternoon, but there he was, working a grill behind a thick plastic curtain, fogged with heat. The Special Pondicherry Dosa that we consumed at the nearby checker-boarded picnic tables had an unusual assortment of vegetables — potatoes, carrots, red capsicum, red onions, salad greens — that were very lightly fried in olive oil. The taste was tactfully light and delicious, but obviously not a masterful example of the traditional dosa. It was more of an adaptation — a dosa for a younger, hipper generation.

A few dozen blocks uptown, in a neighbourhood called Murray Hill, which is jokingly referred to Curry Hill for its many spice stores and Indian restaurants, Madras Mahal serves a soggy Mysore Masala that doesn’t merit the strong name the restaurant trades on. As we boarded a no 7 subway train to Queens, it became clear that Manhattan was a bit of transitional place for dosas — experimental versions and lacklustre normality.

Queens: the king of dosas

If it’s transcendence you’re looking for, Flushing is the place to be. Filled with stand-alone, vinyl-sided houses instead of stone apartment buildings, Flushing Queens feels far more distant from Manhattan than the one-hour train ride would indicate.

Along Bowne Street, a small cluster of Indian businesses centres around the Bowne Street Temple, a small, lushly-carved stone shrine where families come for daily puja. Around the corner Dosa Hutt (note the difference — two “T”s) serves perhaps the most disappointing dosas of our entire journal.

The coconut chutney was absolutely flavourless, and the soggy aloo paneer version was more like a breakfast frankie than a dosa. It didn’t help that the formica tabletops were dirty and grey. Exit, turn left, then left again, and take a second look at the temple. In the basement is the Bowne Street Temple’s canteen, filled with devout old dadis and families eating South Indian food — bonda, vada, and idli — including what we’re convinced is the best dosa in New York. The extremely crispy Hyderabadi Rava Dosa, smeared with scalding green chutney and scraps of green chilli shrapnel has a flavour and the type of spicy enough to keep you picking at it incessantly for minutes afterwards.

We found only after tasting this sublime dosa that in November’s issue of New York Magazine, Padma Lakshmi, the model and host of television show Top Chef, had named the Bowne Street temple’s canteen as her favourite Indian food in the city.

Well, I guess we just have good taste.

Robbie is a business journalist based in Baltimore