A big highlight of my summer was a weekend trip I took to Los Angeles with a couple of adventurous friends who were just as eager to eat and shop their way through ethnic neighborhoods as I was. We skipped the haute cuisine hot spots to hit up Little Tokyo, Little India, and Little Saigon in a giddy, sun-drenched whirlwind, interspersed with massages, pedicures, catnaps, and wine.
I thought I'd found utopia.
One day, we dove head-first into Indian culture in Artesia, California, spending hours ogling silk saris, searching for the perfect set of glittery bangles, impulsively getting our eyebrows threaded, buying too many shoes, and lusting after exotic home furnishings. We pounded the pavement more than any Phoenician is accustomed to, and it felt so good to move.
Of course, it fueled our appetites more than ever, but the neighborhood was full of interesting spots to eat authentic Indian cuisine. We found a cheerful, pint-size cafe, plunked down our shopping bags, and nibbled on sweet and savory Northern Indian snacks called chaat that were a far cry from the Indian buffet fare we're used to. I slurped a rose-scented yogurt lassi shake for a sugar fix.
At the end of our spree, we returned to Phoenix in a haze, feeling satiated but nevertheless envious of folks who live surrounded by so much culture. We vowed to return — soon.
In the meantime, I've been seeking out places in the Valley that give me the kind of cheap thrill I found on vacation. One of my new favorites is a tiny chaat spot in Tempe that serves the same kind of addicting dishes I sampled on my trip.
Incredibly, it's even called Little India.
To compare this place to a mini-market wouldn't be quite accurate, because it feels even smaller than an ordinary convenience store. But its three aisles are surprisingly well stocked with rice, pickles, condiments, spices, and all sorts of frozen breads and ready-to-eat Indian food. If you're in the mood to actually make your own chaat at home, this would be the place to get the goods.
I simply come here to chow down.
Yep, Little India is also a restaurant, with a handful of tables in the back. You're pretty much sitting next to packaged goods that other folks might be shopping for, but who cares? This food is addicting, and you can fill up for just a few bucks.
At the back of the store, there's a door to the kitchen where you place your order by handing a menu checklist to whomever has their hands free. At the end of the meal, you'll get your ticket back so you can pay the cashier at the front.
Unless you already know the difference between pani-puri and paav-bhaji, I recommend picking up one of the full-page menus at the front counter as soon as you walk in. There's a description of each dish on it. Match those up to the pictures on the wall back by the tables, and you'll have a better idea of what your options are. The checklist that you hand to the kitchen is simply a list of dishes, which still may leave you bewildered. (Still, even if you ordered randomly, something tasty will turn up.)
The easiest way to go is with one of three special plates, one of which is a curry of the day, written on a dry-erase board. I went with number one, a simple but satisfying combination of matar paneer (green peas and cubes of Indian cheese in a tomatoey curry sauce), fluffy rice pulao scattered with peas, carrots, and cilantro, and one big, golden bhatura, a round, chewy, deep-fried bread that's puffed up with steam.
To drink, a frothy mango or rose lassi (yogurt shake) is the best way to counteract the spicy flavors, although the cardamom- and clove-scented chai here is also excellent — nothing like the instant stuff they call chai at American coffee shops. (This tea is stronger, more complex, and unsweetened. Add sugar as you please.) As for the too-sweet, neon yellow "lemonade," though, I found it unpalatable.
A light snack fit for sharing is pani-puri, half a dozen thin, crispy fried orbs served with a watery tamarind and cilantro sauce, as well as a mixture of potatoes, yellow peas, and red chile powder. It's also fun to tear off hunks of doughy, cauliflower-stuffed flatbread (gobi paratha) and dunk them into cool, tongue-soothing yogurt sauce.
Some of the other dishes could work as a meal unto themselves, such as paav-bhaji. Surprisingly, this was a lightly toasted, buttered sesame hamburger bun, served open-faced with a very tasty, tangy, bright red vegetable curry studded with peas, onion, and pepper. I cleaned my plate when this landed in front of me one day. Another spicy Punjabi curry (chole), full of chickpeas and onion, went well with a hot bhatura.
Some of the other chaat are variations on a theme, with different delivery systems for a barrage of mouthwatering toppings that include sweet tamarind sauce, spicy mint chutney, fresh cilantro, and thin, crunchy noodles called sev.
Bhel-puri is one of my favorites, with all those ingredients tossed with puffed rice, flat fried wafer bits, potato, and onion. Aloo tikki chaat is two chunky potato cakes smothered with tamarind and mint chutney, yogurt sauce, yellow peas, onion, sev, and chile powder, while khasta kachori chaat is a flaky pastry filled with split peas, potato, and onion, heaped with toppings.
All these dishes combine sweet, savory, spicy, and salty flavors, hot and cool sensations in one bite, and contrasting textures.
If you're ready to try Indian comfort food that'll perk up your taste buds, head to Little India for a wild culinary journey, close to home.