There's been no love lost between myself and those belonging to the Valley's veg-head clan. And I'm a big enough man -- literally as well as figuratively -- to admit that certain prejudiced perceptions of the vegan/vegetarian tribe have heretofore inhibited my gustatory outings. Generally, when someone says the words "vegetarian" or "vegan," I think of some dreadlocked ASU grad student playing hacky-sack in his mandals (i.e., "man sandals") just outside Tempe's Gentle Strength Cooperative. Either that, or of the laxative-like culinary blandness that a name like "Gentle Strength" implies.
Admittedly, this has been pure poppycock on my part. There's no reason vegetarian or vegan vittles cannot taste divine when prepared properly, although I'm sure there are many like me who've cringed at the thought of munching meatless meals. Indeed, before stopping by Udupi Cafe on Scottsdale Road in Tempe, I would have regarded such rabbit food as putatively healthful, yet entirely lacking in any flavor. I neglected to consider the fact that some cultures have spent thousands of years perfecting the art of making fleshless feasts worthy of eating. In the case of Udupi, we're talking about Indian cuisine, with its strong tradition of Hindu-inspired vegetarianism.
Most of us are familiar with North Indian fare. And we've all delighted in curries containing chicken or lamb. But Udupi specializes in South Indian cuisine, which is quite different from its Northern cousin, though no less delectable. The eatery's name refers to a district in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, famous both for its temples and its street food vendors. Udupi's handsome, congenial proprietor Mr. Nagappan Chettiar tells me he hails from this area originally, though over the years he's worked as a chef in New York, Minnesota, and elsewhere.
1636 North Scottsdale Road, Tempe
Lemon rice: $6.99
Chilly gobi: $8.50
Garlic paratha: $2.99
Sambar vada: $3.99
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m., Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesday.
I don't think I've seen so many South Asian folk in one place during my entire time in this burg as I have at Udupi during dinner. And as you might imagine, that was a sign of good things to follow. The place is 100 percent vegetarian, and about 80 percent vegan, to judge from the stars on the bill of fare that alert you as to which items fall into the latter category. Though Chettiar says the restaurant doesn't use eggs, milk products such as yogurt and butter are utilized on occasion. I throw this out there for those who care about such things. All I care about is my palate, which was much pleased by nearly everything I ordered.
What a thrill it was to eat iddly, dine on dosai, and have vada for my victuals. Iddly ain't piddly, to coin a rhyme. (Where's Bo Diddley when you need him?) They're fat, steamed dumplings of ground rice and lentils, and you eat them with various condiments served in little steel cups, such as chutneys made of tamarind and date, coconut, tomato, mint, or sambar, a light soup of lentil flour, and veggies. Iddly is popular in India for breakfast, and usually looks white, though my favorite was the kancheepurum iddly, yellowish from spices, and topped with coriander, shredded carrot, and a few cashew nuts. Even more than iddly, I liked the fried lentil doughnuts known as vada, which can come smothered in a variety of gravies, like sambar or a thick, sour yogurt sauce topped with the lightly fried leaves of the curry tree. This is a savory treat more than a sweet one, though it can be made somewhat sweet with the liberal addition of tamarind-date chutney.
Nothing prepares you for the magnificent simplicity of Udupi's dosai, these thin, sometimes crispy rice crepes, eaten with chutneys or filled with various ingredients such as onion, cauliflower, tomato, and so on. Cracking open these long crepe rolls and devouring the hot mushy innards, like potato and onion cooked in butter and lightly spiced, I can see why dosai can be enjoyed all day long as a tiffin, that old British term for snacks. Crikey, but I wish I had two or three to nibble on as I scribble this review!
If your esophagus is flame-proof and you're looking for a challenge, I suggest Udupi's fiery chickpea and carrot vindaloo accompanied by the tamarind rice with peanuts and chiles. I downed nearly a gallon of water and several mango lassis (that yogurty Indian beverage) in an attempt to douse the conflagration in my mouth. Less spicy and more to my liking was the lemon rice, redolent of the fruit for which I'm named and topped with Spanish peanuts. I inhaled a colossal bowl of this lemon rice with another dish dear to my stomach, the kadai bhindi masala, or gooey okra prepared in an Indian pan known as a kadai, with onions and green peppers in a tangy red paste. I love okra, so if you're not fond of those green "lady's fingers," as they're occasionally called, best stay away from this one.
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I so gorged myself on Indian-prepped veggies that I was far too full each time I went to try the carrot halwa, rice pudding, syrupy gulab jamoon pastries, or any of the other happy endings. Sorry about that, though I'm sure they're delish. I just couldn't stop noshing the warm, multilayered paratha bread, which I had once plain and once so stuffed with crushed garlic that I pity anyone walking within 20 yards of my porthole. Had a blast using this paratha to scoop up big helpings of dhal curry, mildly piquant from cumin, mustard seeds and other spices added to the marvelous lentil mush.
Chilly gobi sounds like something Indian teenagers might say to greet each other: "Hey, chilly gobi, mon." It resembles sweet and sour pork, but it's actually deep-fried balls of cauliflower, sautéed in a sauce of chiles, soy sauce, garlic and ginger. I'm not sure I could give up meat altogether for a plate of scrumptious nuggets such as these, but they do come close to hitting the mark.
I tried the buffet one day, and found it topnotch, though not as challenging as the regular supper menu. No one familiar with other, meat-centric Indian buffets in town will be boggled by the aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower curry), the very mild tomato-rice, or the much lighter dahl than served in the evening. But there are iddly, and as many rice crepes as you can handle. We're blessed to have Udupi in our midst. Short on ambiance, long on value and taste, Udupi proves that neither veganism nor vegetarianism need leave even a meat lover wanting.