For decades, Punjabi-inflected tandoori cooking dominated the menus at most metro Phoenix Indian restaurants. Today, though, Indian cooking in the Valley is more regionally diverse, and more exciting than ever.
For proof of this trend, there’s Godavari, a Phoenix restaurant that specializes in the spicy, pungent flavors and fried street snacks of southern India.
At first glance, Godavari looks like any other unassuming neighborhood restaurant. It sits on a sleepy corner inside an even sleepier north Phoenix shopping center, taking over the low-slung, stucco property that formerly housed a Macayo’s Mexican restaurant.
This is no quiet mom-and-pop operation, though. Godavari is part of one of the fastest-growing Indian restaurant chains in the U.S. The first Godavari location opened in the Boston area in 2015. Less than three years later, there are nearly 20 Godavari locations spread from coast to coast, with more locations in the works. Since its launch, Godavari has worked to position itself as the foremost purveyor of South Indian cooking in America, drawing big crowds on the weekends with impressive all-you-can-eat buffet spreads and “live” tableside preparation of dishes like dosas and chaat.
The restaurant has anointed itself “the best South Indian restaurant in the U.S.”
Peel back the marketing hoopla, though, and you’ll find Godavari is a relatively quiet, family-friendly neighborhood spot. The building’s formerly bright Macayo’s color scheme has been replaced by a neutral beige exterior. Inside, the restaurant’s bright, vivid yellow walls are decorated with framed black-and-white portraits of famous Bollywood idols. The ambiance is slightly refined but mostly casual.
The friendly host in the lobby, on most days, is Murali Jampani, Godavari’s local franchise owner, who takes pleasure in introducing newcomers to the flavors of South Indian cooking.
There’s a lot to explore on Godavari’s exhaustive menu. Along with typical southern Indian snacks and dishes, you’ll find north and central Indian dishes, including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian entrees, along with a smattering of bold, spicy Indo-Chinese specialties.
Every meal begins with complimentary papadum, the crisp, earthy, tortilla-chip-like lentil wafers that come to life when you dip them in your side of mint or tamarind chutney.
From there, you’ll want to linger over Godavari’s sprawling appetizer menu. A good place to start is with the vegetarian platter, a satisfying mix of crispy, fried treats, including a crisp veggie samosa, a couple of aloo bonda – deep-fried spheres stuffed with mashed potatoes – and fried mirchi peppers, a spicy and popular South Indian tea snack.
Don’t miss the vada, deep-fried lentil “doughnuts” that boast a delightfully chewy texture. The Gobi Manchurian, a mound of sweet-spicy stir-fried cauliflower that smolders with chile heat and flavor, is also excellent.
If there’s a focal point on the Godavari menu, though, it’s the restaurant’s dosas. The thin, rice-lentil pancakes are configured into various papery scrolls and conical shapes, and served with various small steel bowls brimming with chutneys and a thin, tamarind-vegetable sauce called sambar.
A properly made dosa is a thing of beauty, and especially one like Godavari’s so-called Mysore Delight. This long, thin shareable dosa fills the width of the table. It displays the sort of crisp, buttery texture that makes dosas impossible to resist.
Another highlight from the dosa menu is the fragrant uthappam, a smaller, pizza-like rice pancake cooked softly over a griddle and topped with tomatoes and onions.
Along with dosas, the other central specialty at Godavari are biryanis, the famously baroque and multilayered South Asian rice dish. The essential biryani at Godavari is probably the Hyderabadi Mutton Dum biryani, which is described on the menu as the “king of all the biryanis.” The dish, consisting of a platter of herb-scented basmati rice embedded with slow-cooked hunks of earthy, saucy meat, is impossibly fragrant and rich.
You’ll want to sample at least one of Godavari’s specialty curries. The goat curry with Andhra spices is wonderful — a thick, spicy gravy tempered by the pungent aroma of curry leaves.
Unlike your typical tandoori joint, seafood is prominent on the Godavari menu. Although pretty much every spice-garnished shrimp that crossed my plate at Godavari was a little overcooked and rubbery, I found delicious consolation in a dish called ginger fish. The white fish, carved into neat, bite-sized slices, is tossed in a lovely sweet-savory ginger-garlic sauce, and stir-fried to for a tender, vaguely crisp texture.
For taste of Chinese cooking by way of the Indian subcontinent, you’ll want to explore Godavari’s compelling menu of Indian-Chinese dishes. Try the decadent and spicy Chitoor Chinese noodles, a heat-laced dish brimming with homemade egg noodles, chicken and handfuls of fiery dried chiles.
Will you find chicken tikka masala, butter chicken, and other tandoori-cooked fare on the menu at Godavari? You will. The tandoori sampler, for instance, boasts a familiar and delicious medley of marinated, oven-roasted boneless chicken.
But ordering chicken tikka at Godavari’s is little like going to a Mexican restaurant and ordering a hamburger. You would be missing the point. So resist, if you can, the curried cauliflower, the saag paneer, and the garlic naan. Come instead for the thick and spicy curries; the wafer-thin dosas glistening with melted ghee; or the biryani platters heaving with turmeric-stained rice and meat.
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Is this the best South Indian restaurant in the U.S., or even metro Phoenix? Maybe not. But there’s little doubt that Godavari is one of the most ambitious and interesting new Indian restaurants in the city.
1909 West Thunderbird Road; 602-795-5059
Hours: Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday noon to 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday noon to 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Godavari veggie platter $11.99
Mysore delight dosa $9.99
Hyderabadi mutton dum biryani $12.99
Goat curry $13.99