Are we moving into a golden period of Indian cooking in metro Phoenix? With the exception of some parts — the far west Valley, for one, remains cruelly deficient of options — there’s never been this much first-rate Indian food around town. The options are more regionally diverse than they were only a decade ago, too, with local menus moving beyond familiar lunch buffet staples like samosas and chicken tikka masala.
Casual Indian street food, in particular, is making inroads in the Valley. That’s what you’ll find at Lotus Deli, a small restaurant located inside the Lotus Market in Mesa (the South Asian grocer also has a location in north Phoenix). The specialty at Lotus Deli is boldly flavored, addictive dishes like chaats and kathi rolls. The menu is entirely vegetarian, a fact that’s fairly easy to miss at first, thanks to the omnipresence of hearty, meaty ingredients like potatoes, beans, chickpeas, and rice.
Lotus Deli, which opened about five years ago, is larger and more pleasant than what you might expect from a grocery store eatery. It’s closer to a cafe than a cafeteria in terms of ambiance, with elegant medallion light fixtures suspended over neat rows of four-top tables. A TV plays movies and videos softly in the background. You order at the counter, where a digital menu board flashes pictures and descriptions of menu items. Note the refrigerator case, which is well-stocked with packaged rum cakes and freshly prepared drinks — options include thick and velvety mango lassi; a smooth, pink-hued rose milk lassi; and fresh coconut and sugarcane juices. Masala chai and Indian coffee are also available to order.
But you probably came for the chaat. The carby Indian street snack, famous for being as highly regional and adaptable as pizza, is available here in many configurations.
Chaats are casual food, but they are also a food of abundance. Order a chaat and you invoke a heaving, multilayered, carb-laden pastiche that might include everything from mashed potatoes to puffed rice to crispy crackers, all of it dusted with the spicy flicker of chaat masala seasoning. Chaats don’t hold back on flavor — a single chaat can touch off every kind of pleasure point: salty, sweet, tangy, and spicy are routinely packed into a single triumphant bite.
There are endless variations on chaat, but perhaps the most recognizable is the samosa chaat. The Lotus Deli rendition features a grizzled, crispy pastry, stuffed with potatoes and peas, which is perched on a layer of gently spiced, thick chickpea curry. The samosa has been fried to a deep, pleasing crunch, and the curry is rich as gravy — you can dampen the pastry with some of the curry, or spoon some of the mint and tamarind sauces that come with the dish over its hard shell. Either way, this is the pinnacle of comfort food.
Bhel puri, a Mumbai-style chaat, is slightly heavier and richer, with layers of puffed rice, potatoes, tomatoes, a dappling of chopped white onions and cilantro, and a finishing layer of sev, the crunchy chickpea noodles that blanket many of the house chaats. The dish is slicked with a tangy tamarind sauce, igniting its starchy base with sweet, tangy notes. Crispy fried crackers, planted decoratively around the dish, make fine shovels for moving the whole sweet-tangy salad into your mouth.
I keep returning to the aloo tikki chaat, though, one of the more ornate chaats at Lotus Deli. The base is a thick mashed potato patty, which is enveloped in chickpea curry and stippled lightly with a bracing mint sauce. The dish runs through every flavor on the spectrum, but it’s the baked bean-like sweetness that will keep you coming back for more.
When you don’t have room for a hearty chaat, try the house-made pani puri, hollow and extra-crispy wheat balls served with a salad of potato and chickpeas on the side. Simply poke a small hole in the egg-shaped balls, spoon some of the spicy potato and chickpea into the hollow shell, and top it all off with the flavored water provided on the side. The water is a refreshing blend of cilantro, mint, and tamarind, and taken all together, the pani puri are small and humble conveyors of a complex sort of gustatory pleasure. One crispy ball delivers a quick, pleasing jolt of sweet, savory, and tangy flavors.
There’s more to Lotus Deli than chaats and snacks. It’s hard to go wrong with the thali, for example, a combo plate that includes your choice of curry, along with sides of lentil soup, rice, salad and flatbreads. Recently, the curry of the day was mattar paneer, and it was terrific: the oniony, mildly spicy tomato gravy was buttery and smooth, with nice lilts of sweetness.
Slightly less satisfying is the veggie biryani combo, accessorized with condiments like yogurt and a red onion salad. The rice dish is undeniably aromatic and spicy, but altogether it’s not nearly as complex or flavor-packed as the average chaat on the menu.
Arguably the most irresistible delicacies at Lotus Grill are the kathi wraps, aluminum-wrapped, Kolkata-style stuffed paratha (flatbread) rolls. The wheat flatbreads are wrapped around fillings like grilled paneer, dabbed with the restaurant’s peppy mint sauce. Even better, there’s the choley kathi wrap, stuffed with gently spiced garbanzo curry. It’s a simple dish, yet also lush and satisfying.
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For a sweet finish, try the house halwa — a moist and slightly crumbly semolina pudding with a wonderfully mellow sweetness. There’s also meetha paan, the fragrant post-lunch mouth freshener featuring the evergreen, heart-shaped betel leaf. Pop it in your mouth and let the blend of nuts, fruits, and spices work their magic on your breath and your digestive system. Or, forget the meetha paan altogether and grab another plate of chaat.
Lotus Deli (inside Lotus Market)
2043 South Alma School Road, Mesa
Hours: Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Samosa chaat $4.49
Aloo tiki chaat $4.49
Thali combo $6.99
Chole kathi wrap $5.49