The last few months have seen any number of spectacular new places to eat in Los Angeles, from the dazzling new restaurant of Floridian fusionist Norman Van Aken to a new dumpling place in Alhambra, from great new East L.A. taco trucks to Kazuto Matsusaka’s stunning return to form at Beacon. Forgotten ’90s chef heroes re-appear at Noe and at Le Dôme, at better than the top of their form. Rosemead sprouts cafés specializing in the food of ever more remote areas of China. Steak houses open like Equity Waiver comedies. Half the French chefs in town engage in a game of musical chairs.
But the only restaurant my friends seem to be talking about, the place where even the snootiest of them have eaten half a dozen times since it opened last month, is the new Los Feliz outlet of the India Sweets & Spices chain, a pan-Indian vegetarian buffet attached to an Indian supermarket. It is the right restaurant in the right neighborhood at the right time — cheap Indian groceries, Bollywood hits pounding from the video store tucked into a corner of the dining room, and a clientele that wouldn’t look out of place in any of the neighborhood’s late-night clubs.
Hanging around the counter, waiting for masala dosas whose size approaches that of the Palomar telescope, you run into punk rock moms, pierced vegans, and people you may not have seen since the Brave Dog shut down in the early ’80s, health-food guys and people whose idea of health food is an Oki Dog, Expedition drivers and advocates of late-’60s Mopar, all of East Hollywood drawn by the fresh flavors, meatlessness and incredibly low prices. In the brief time the restaurant has been open, it has become a de facto cafeteria for the hospital down the street, and at certain times in the afternoon, half the people in the dining room will be wearing surgical scrubs.
As a student, I used to frequent the unrelated India Sweet House in the Pico-Fairfax area, where a samosa-topped cup of curried chickpeas was half the price of a Meatty Meat Burger down the block, and I learned to appreciate carrot halvah, the boiled-milk fudge called burfi, and the unbelievably pungent masala cashews, which were so laden with the stinky spice asafoetida that I was not allowed to eat them in the house. Later, I transferred my custom to the India Sweets & Spices in Culver City (when I couldn’t get to the late Standard Sweets in Artesia). But the Los Feliz India Sweets & Spices is more of an actual restaurant than most of the other outlets in the chain, which seem to serve hot food more or less as an adjunct to their deli counters, and whose improvised seating is even more rudimentary than Los Feliz’s plain, long tables.
The basic unit of consumption at IS&S is probably the $3.99 lunch and dinner special, a segmented foam tray laden with basmati rice, daal, tart raita, pickles, and a vegetable dish of some kind, ladled out cafeteria style from tubs in a long steam table, and crowned with a whole-wheat chapati that hangs limply as yesterday’s tortilla. For an extra buck, you can get a leaden, potato-stuffed samosa and a crunchy, plate-size papadum; for an extra two, an Indian dessert and a mango lassi instead of a can of pop. The women behind the counter never seem to get testy when the third customer in a row asks them if the potato-cauliflower curry has potatoes and cauliflower in it (it does), if the spicy mixed vegetables are really spicy (not excessively), or whether they can substitute a ladleful of the saag paneer for the black-lentil daal (no problem).
The dinners are cheap, filling and tasty. But while the steam-table food (unless you catch it just right) is basically steam-table food, not especially different from what you’d find on any local Indian buffet, the made-to-order dishes are delicious: freshly fried bhaturas, balloon-shaped breads, served with curried chickpeas; the thin pancakes called parnthas, stuffed with highly spiced cauliflower or homemade cheese; the South Indian lentil doughnuts called vada, served with a thin curried vegetable broth.
The masala dosas, South Indian pancakes, are pretty good here, at least for Hollywood, enormous sourdough crepes folded around a filling of curried potatoes, not as thin and delicate as some versions but respectably crisp. The Mysore dosa, crusted on its inside with a mixture of dried spices instead of the potatoes, is delicious, a light, highly flavored snack as big around as a manhole cover. The rava dosa, which has vegetables and herbs mixed into its batter, collapses under the weight of its mix-ins into a thick sheet perforated by holes whose emptiness is glazed with a sort of crunchy vegetable glassine. To a certain segment of the clientele, I suspect the connotations of glassine probably don’t hurt.
India Sweets & Spices, 3126 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 345-0360. Lunch and dinner seven days, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Food for two, $8–$12. AE, D, MC, V.