The Valley's got steakhouses galore and burger joints in every direction, but if you're looking for vegetarian food — whether you don't eat meat or you just like to mix things up — it can be an exhaustive search.
So how is it that Chandler has two very tasty, completely vegetarian South Indian restaurants just one mile apart from each other? Considering how many Indians were digging into crispy dosai and rich curries at both Woodlands Vegetarian South Indian Kitchen, and Café Krishna, there's clearly a demand for ethnic specialties in these parts.
The more, the merrier.
What a lovable little mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall.
A friend who lives close by confessed that his whole family's addicted to the complex flavors at Woodlands, and now I understand why. There are so many intriguing tastes and textures that it's hard to stop eating.
Woodlands is about as no-frills as a restaurant comes. Order at the counter and they'll bring out your food on Styrofoam plates and plastic trays. This is not fast food, although the amenities are the same — a self-serve soda machine, bins of plastic silverware, and metal napkin dispensers.
Meanwhile, the unique condiment bar is stocked with fiery, bright green mint chutney; gingery red pepper chutney; fragrant coconut chutney (whose heat takes a few seconds to hit you); sticky, sweet tamarind sauce with a few whole tamarind pods floating in it; and pickled peppers, cauliflower, and carrot in mustard oil. These goodies seem to go well with everything here.
From the chaat (snack) list, bhel puri got my mouth watering. Puffed rice tossed with tamarind sauce, chickpeas, raisins, onions, and cilantro, with sev crispies sprinkled on top, was sweet, tangy, and spicy all at once. Luckily, I was already familiar with this dish, but for folks who aren't, the menu could use more detail.
Next, I eyed up more than a dozen kinds of dosa, and it wasn't easy settling on one of these thin, crispy rice crepes. Pav bhaji dosai was a smart choice, stuffed with a spicy mix of mashed potato, carrots, peas, onions, and cilantro. And a plate of hot, golden poori — a type of Indian bread that puffs up like a balloon — tasted delicious with a masal stew of potatoes, onion, and tomatoes.
It's carbs galore — yet incredible variety — on the menu. There are soft, moist little steamed cakes called iddly, made from rice and lentil, as well as crunchy, deep-fried medu vadai, peppery lentil patties that resemble doughnuts. And wafer-like rice papadam were fun to dip in tangy sambar vegetable stew or one of the chutneys. At lunch, there was no buffet, but a couple of the lunch specials gave a good sampling of these dishes.
For a healthful (I use the word loosely) dose of dairy, luscious paneer butter masala — chunks of homemade cheese in a creamy sauce with tomato and onion — was the perfect thing to soak up with all the various starches.
And none of the spicy food was too hard to tackle with milkshake-thick sweet lassi, made with yogurt, or sweet, perfume-y rose milk. For a final bite, rasmalai, a dessert of paneer cheese in sweetened clotted cream, completely cooled my taste buds before the inevitable food coma kicked in.
Thanks to amber-hued glass lamps, elegant framed prints of classical Indian art, and dark wooden carvings that make the casual space feel soothing, atmosphere is almost as much a draw as the food at Café Krishna.
Almost as much.
The colorful menu is simply sprawling, loaded with more than 100 items, as well as photos, factoids, and easy-to-understand descriptions of Southern Indian cuisine. Reading over it, my dining companion and I were struck with indecision in the face of so many mouthwatering choices.
We munched on masala puri — a chaat comprising small, crunchy puris (fried puffy bread), a confetti of onions and potatoes, yogurt sauce, and spicy-sweet tamarind chutney — while waiting for the bread parade to begin.
First came our order of bullet naan — a crispy, doughy variation on the tandoor bread topped with garlic, green chile, and cilantro. It was tempting to just keep nibbling until sett uthappam (with a side of veggie kurma) showed up. Here was a steaming stack of flat, spongy bread sprinkled with chili powder and cilantro, and a bowl of potatoes, green beans, carrots, and cauliflower in thick cashew nut gravy. At that point, I knew we had to pace ourselves.
And then the dramatic "special rava masala dosai" appeared, a giant, crisp crepe with paper-thin red onions, green chile, curry leaves, and cashews cooked into it; the filling was a spicy combination of potatoes, carrots, peas, and onions. This was lighter and lacier than the standard paper dosai here, and I loved every bite.
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Somehow I lucked out at the lunch buffet one day, loading up my plate just as they'd put out fresh, deep-fried vadai lentil patties and deep-fried aloo bonda (potato-stuffed chickpea flour balls). I ate them with spicy lentil and onion kolhapuri misal, dal makhni (lentils sautéed with tomatoes and onions), and heady baigan bhartha (baked sautéed eggplant).
Meanwhile, gobi manchurian wasn't on the buffet, but I'll wish for it next time I'm there. Imagine deep-fried chunks of marinated cauliflower with sautéed onion and red and green pepper, all glazed in a sweet-and-sour tomato-soy-chile sauce. I ended up with leftovers, and I devoured them as soon there was more room in my belly.
And, of course, sweets were hard to turn down at Café Krishna. Buttery carrot halwa, scented with cardamom? Creamy Indian-style rice pudding, studded with nuts and raisins? A creamy glass of badam (almond) milk, which tasted sort of like Fruity Pebbles? Yes to all of them.
For the drive home, a strong cup of chai tea was definitely in order.