Tucked into a Hicksville strip mall is a cheerful little eatery called Chennai Dosas that can change the way you view lunch buffets. And vegetarian eating. And Southern cooking -- Southern Indian, that is.
True, the place offers some familiar Northern dishes, such as palak paneer -- the rich, seductively spiced stew of spinach and house-made cheese.
But the true focus is a repertoire of South Indian specialties headed by the dosa, a lightly crunchy, filled crepe.
At the bargain-priced lunch buffet, you can order your dosa or utthapam (dosa batter with the filling baked in, like a thick pancake) to be delivered to your table. A winning version is the Mysore masala dosa, with a spicy mashed potato-onion mixture. Better yet, try an utthapam with onions, chili and peas. It's a riot of flavors that pop on the palate.
Iddly, or steamed lentil doughnuts, are light, ideal for dipping into sambal, a spicy vegetable soup-sauce-stew. And hope the buffet holds some homestyle surprises, such as the combination of beetroot and carrots that appears one afternoon.
At dinner, an appetizer assortment holds a selection of deep-fried items; the star of the plate is vada, a puffy lentil doughnut. More alluring is a dish called Kangipuram iddly, cream of rice cakes studded with chilies and cashews. And bhel puri, a street treat comprising puffed rice, crisped noodles, onion and cilantro. Also done well is aloo chat, a spicy boiled potato and chickpea salad. For an electrifying experience, try the Indian-Chinese dish called Gobi Manchurian, featuring cauliflower sauteed in a firecracker Szechuan-style sauce.
A spring masala dosa, which is described as containing onions, tomato, chili and potato, has only the faintest smear of potato. It's one of the few letdowns. Another is the gimmicky pizza utthapam, topped with a too-sweet tomato sauce, vegetables and cheese. But you'll want to order tomato rice, sprightly and intriguing. And alu chana, a lively amalgam of chickpeas and potatoes in a spicy sauce. The flaky griddled bread called paratha goes well with everything.
Finish with gulab jamun, fried cheese balls with sweet syrup. Or kheer, the comforting Indian version of rice pudding. Perhaps kulfi, rich Indian ice cream.
Better yet, all three.