There are as many kinds of dosas as there are moms in South India — which is to say, a lot. This Indian breakfast and snack food is a thin, crispy crepe made from a lightly fermented batter of ground rice and lentils. The batter is ladled onto a hot griddle and then quickly spread to paper thinness by circling the ladle on the griddle in ever-expanding circles. A homemade dosas might be the width of a dinner plate; a restaurant or street-vendor dosa could be the length of your arm.
A dosa is eaten by hand — tear off chunks with your thumb and first finger of your right hand while anchoring the dosa with the other three fingers. While plain dosas were used for comparison's sake here, there's no need to limit yourself: They come wrapped around spiced potatoes (masala dosa), spread out even larger and thinner (paper dosa), made out of a wheat batter (rava dosa) and in many more variations. Turn the page for our five favorites.
At this all-vegetarian bakery/cafeteria, you order and pay at one window, then take your order ticket to the kitchen window a few steps away. A good dosa offers two textures — crispy, almost crackling, on the griddle-down side and chewily pocked with tiny air holes on the upper surface. This version, inelegantly served on a Styrofoam tray, nails it. It comes with the traditional accompaniments of coconut chutney and sambar, along with a pool of smooth tomato/chili chutney. The sambar, a lentil-based vegetable soup treated as a dipping sauce, is heavy on the cumin and features a generous portion of the green-bean-like vegetable drumstick. Drumstick pods are to be chewed on until only the fibrous strings are left, and then discarded. A highlight here is the coconut chutney — thick, fresh and spicy — it's an almost-iridescent green from the fresh chilis blended into the mix. The adjoining store, perhaps twice as big as the restaurant, is also worth a visit, selling everything from huge bags of whole-wheat roti flour to costume jewelry. There's even an aisle devoted just to cake rusks, the addictive love child of a biscotti and a nilla wafer, designed to be dipped in a cup of chai. 3126 Los Feliz Blvd., Atwater Village; 323-345-0360.
This strip-mall gem is another all-vegetarian spot. A meat-free menu can be a good indicator of authentic South Indian food, as many Hindus in the region avoid meat. Around Southern Indian cities like Chennai, many restaurants have a sign, like Annapurna's, that says “pure vegetarian,” meaning not just meat, but also eggs are excluded (dairy's okay, though). The dosa here balances the spongy side and the crisp side perfectly, and comes with excellent coconut chutney, smooth tomato/chili chutney and a cuminy sambar richly studded with carrots. On my visit, one television played a cricket match and the other showed Bollywood-music movie videos. The lunch buffet here comes with a made-to-order smaller masala dosa on the side for each diner. 10200 Venice Blvd., Culver City; 310-204-5500.
Noticeably nicer on the inside than it looks on the outside (like so many LA places — see the next restaurant on the list for another example), this spacious spot has a dosa section on the menu, always a good sign. The service is also a notch better than might be expected — friendly verging on doting, with a smiley woman in an eye-catching royal-blue sari taking orders and holding sway over the dining room during our visit. The food here hails specifically from Kerala, a state that runs along India's south-western coast. Meat does appear on the menu — all of it prepared in a separate kitchen from the vegetarian items. The dosa here was a true winner — most notable for the distinct tangy taste that comes from fermenting the batter, and which makes the dosa addictively complex. The coconut chutney here was also a standout, tasting strongly of coconut and specked with fried spices such as mustard seeds without being very spicy. The “spring dosa” — a crispy masterpiece wrapped around mixed-vegetable filling of potato, carrot, tomato, onion, cabbage and green peas was a hit at our table, too. 10406 Venice Blvd., Culver City; 310-559-9644.
Talk about places that are nicer on the inside — Paru's is borderline scary from the street, with barred windows and a bell you have to ring for entrance. But Paru's has been on this strip of Sunset since 1979, so many people are in on the secret: step inside and you're in an enchanted grotto, a full-immersion trip to the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, including photos on the walls of religious sites from the area. The dosa is thoroughgoingly crispy, and the coconut chutney mild and fresh-tasting. It's the sambar here that takes it to the next level: good enough to lap up, sour with tamarind and earthy with lentils and the scent of curry leaf. 5140 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; 323-661-7600.
1. Udupi Palace:
I had high hopes for this Artesia stalwart — servers have the words “more dosa!” emblazoned on the back of their maroon polo shirts, so there's no question what the specialty of the house is. And my hopes were exceeded. The coconut chutney is almost creamy in its richness, the sambar is cuminy and slightly spicy, and the dosa knocks it out of the park. Here is a dosa that is well-flavored, perfectly crispy on one side, tenderly chewy on the other side and compulsively delicious. It's the kind of thing you could eat every day, as millions of people in India do. And if you've fallen completely in love with dosas after scarfing down this perfect specimen, Farm Fresh market just down the block, at 18551 Pioneer Blvd., sells ready-made dosa batter in the refrigerated cases in back, so you can take some home with you. 18653 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia; 562-860-1950.
Ruth Welte is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.