When I mentioned to friends that I was eating a lot of dosas in Little India, many of them shot back, “What‘s that?” And these are professed fans of Indian food. But I can’t be too smug: Until a few years ago, I myself was in the dark about dosas, large crepes made of rice flour. They‘re thin as air and typically served folded or rolled up. They can be eaten plain, or stuffed with potatoes or cheese. They generally come with sambalsambarsambhar (a hot, yellow, mildly spicy soup whose spelling varies as much as its flavors) and chutney (a cool relish). They’re a vegetarian staple in southern India.
For me, dosas were an acquired taste. The first few I ate seemed starch-heavy and presented something of a mystery: Did you eat them with your hands? A fork? Did you dip the dosa into the sambal and chutney, or spoon on the sauces? (Answer: all of the above.) But with their varied textures, contrasting flavors and temperatures, dosas subtly cast their spell. Each bite, depending on how you dunk and slather, can stress a different element -- they‘re really fun to eat.
Recently, I set out to determine my favorite dosa on a small strip of Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, the main drag of Little India. For variation’s sake, I also sampled the uttapa -- flat, thicker ground rice pancakes with onions and vegetables sprinkled on during cooking. I took my Pakistani friend Arthur a couple of times, and once even dragged along his two growing boys -- when you‘re sampling as many dosas as we were, it helps to bring a few hollow legs.
Jay Bharat Vegetarian Gourmet. A minimally outfitted little storefront whose name means something like “Viva India!,” this is a no-frills, classic sweet-and-snack shop with high-quality food. It doesn’t serve the largest dosas in the neighborhood, but in this case size doesn‘t really matter. Sit at the counter and take your pick. The basic dosa is excellent, with a wonderful sourdough-like tang and a delicate crispness -- our hands-down favorite. Every other part of the dosa -- the masala (potato-and-onion filling), the sambar and a cool, gentle coconut chutney -- if not as remarkable as the wrapping, was sufficiently good.
The uttapa with onions, tomatoes and rounds of serrano chiles is also small, but superb -- lightly cooked and part crisp, part soft, alive with flavor from crunchy onions, warm, collapsing, juicy tomatoes and deviously wicked bits of chile.
Udipi Palace . Udipi Palace is a restaurant as opposed to a snack shop: The menu offers appetizers and curries as well as dosas and uttapas, and waiters take your order. Some time ago, I discovered its special rava dosa, which is not as thin as regular dosas thanks to something called “cream of wheat” flour. This makes the crepe heavier and chewier but also somewhat lacy, with a different kind of crispness -- the kind of crispness found, say, in the best potsticker. I have tried rava dosas all over Little India, and Udipi’s, with onions, chiles, cumin and cilantro cooked into the batter, is eye-catching and transcendent -- if you‘re lucky.
Unfortunately, Udipi Palace’s kitchen can be woefully inconsistent. I had to drag poor Arthur there three times before he experienced the greatness of its special rava dosa -- but when he did, he understood. Udipi‘s potato masala is on the bland side, its coconut chutney nothing special, but its sambal is delicious, with long-cooked pieces of squash swimming in it. The uttapas and masala dosas here are respectable -- and big! -- but why, when there is even the possibility of having one of those special rava dosas, would you ever order anything else?
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Woodlands. One of an Indian-based chain of vegetarian restaurants, Woodlands is a large, full-service, sit-down establishment. The dining room, with its pale-mauve color and dry-walled ogee arches, has a sturdy, plain and utilitarian look, but at mealtime it’s filled to capacity. The menu features “pure vegetarian South Indian cuisine” -- thalis, pullavas, curries and breads -- but we cut right to the dosas. While no single item stands out, everything we tried was delicious. The rava dosa wasn‘t quite as beautiful or crisp as Udipi’s, the dosas weren‘t as delicately sour as Jay Bharat’s, but they were soundly good; and the potato masala mixture was fresh, with a beautiful buttery texture. A fine uttapa came with warm, melting tomatoes and firm green peas. The chai and chutneys were rather generic. If you want a sit-down meal where everybody‘s happy, Woodlands is the place.
Ambala Sweets and Snacks. The smallest, most modest of the snack shops, Ambala is always busy. (There are several Ambala restaurants -- no relation -- around Little India, including one in the crook of the same shopping center inside.) A glass case displays sweets in such vivid colors and generous portions that they’re as compelling as jewels or toys (depending on the age of the beholder).
Dosas here are smallish (and very inexpensive), and are distinguished by their wonderfully spiced, fluffy potato masala dotted with black mustard seeds. Dosas also come with two spirited chutneys: a cooling pale-green mint and a fluorescent-orange tomato -- a far cry from some of the more insipid coconut chutneys down the street. The rava dosa, served only on weekdays, doesn‘t have the thickness or chewiness of Woodlands’ or Udipi‘s -- it lacks the “cream of wheat.” But the dosa filled with paneer (a fresh white cheese) is definitely worth trying. As long as you’re here, don‘t even try to resist a sweet -- I like kalakan and milk cake (sweets made of cooked-down milk with a sort of cheesecake flavor), not to mention the great paean to milk itself, rasmallai.
Jay Bharat, 18701 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia; (562) 924-3310. Udipi Palace, 18635 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia; (562) 860-1950. Woodlands, 11833 Artesia Blvd., Artesia; (562) 860-6500. Ambala Sweets and Snacks, 18433 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia; (562) 402-0006.