Photo by Anne FishbeinA decent dosa, the thin, burnished crepe from India that spreads across the table like an unfolded parachute, may have more surface area than any food item on Earth. Broad as knotted carpets or the infield at Dodger Stadium, dosas are the only snack that might as reasonably be sold by yardage as by weight. A Kerala-born restaurateur I once met claimed that her grandfather had conducted research back in south India to determine the ideal size for a dosa, which is to say the maximum length of rolled crepe that most customers could be expected to eat before the concoction congealed into a ghee-slippery nightmare. Most of the Indian restaurants in Artesia at the time competed with their masala dosas the way certain East L.A. taquerias do with their burritos, and every café and snack shop on the Pioneer Boulevard strip advertised cheaper dosas, bigger dosas, more amply stuffed dosas.
The restaurateur never revealed exactly how big the ideal dosa happened to be — a trade secret, one presumes — but her own dosa was a shade short of formidable, carefully crafted and very nice to eat, but nowhere near as large as the thin kilims, sombreros and Louisville Sluggers of batter that encased the spiced potatoes at her competitors.
These days, the biggest dosas in town may be found at the south Indian vegetarian restaurant Woodlands way up in Chatsworth. They are tremendous, champion-size beasts, large as umbrellas, folded into great, crisp envelopes over fillings of homemade cheese and chutney; rolled around spicy sautéed cabbage into “spring rolls” the size of the Sunday Times; or stuffed with a sticky mass that tastes like enough hominy grits to feed a Kentucky family for a week. The butter dosa, a half-acre of crunchy brownness jutting off both ends of a rather long platter, is rolled around a slug of gently curried potatoes that you may not run across until you’ve been eating the thing for 15 minutes. Even the basic dosa, unstuffed and crudely folded, can make two or three people very happy, tearing off pieces and smearing them with thin mango chutney, moistening them with the house’s pale-green coconut sauce, sluicing them with the turmeric-dyed broth sambar. Woodlands is dosa heaven.
Woodlands, which shares its North Valley mini-mall with a tanning parlor, a sushi bar and a hot-dog stand, occupies as plain a box as you will find, dominated by a steam table, decorated with a few photographs of Indian monuments, buzzing with a dim soundtrack of Bollywood musicals. Sometimes, the dining room throbs with the noise of families, tables of abundantly mustachioed men, groups of Indian UCLA students coming for the Kerala curried-vegetable avial and pooris the size of their heads. At other times, the restaurant is disconcertingly empty, and one’s own children may gaze longingly at the stream of cars passing through the Del Taco takeout lane just outside.
You will find most of the usual south Indian starches at Woodlands — the steamed rice cakes called iddly; the oniony porridge pancakes called uttupam; the mung-bean crepes called pesarat — served with the usual complements of sambar and chutney, and done extremely well. The crisply fried cauliflower with garlic and ginger is very good. I loved the fried pingpong-ball bonda of mashed potato, the thick, creamy dish of peas cooked with cheese, and the chile-hot vegetable biryani.
In the afternoons, Woodlands is strictly a buffet restaurant, and on the steam table you’ll find the crunchy fried lentil doughnuts called vada; puffs of poori bread; buttery rounds of paratha; knobby lumps of limp vegetable pakora; and a vat of Woodlands’ special lemon rasam, a thin, peppery Tamil vegetable sauce for rice that doubles as a soup and as a healing tonic. There may be a mound of bisbela hanna, a delicious sort of southern Indian lentil-rice pilaf, and a container of curried drumstick vegetable (it’s like chewy okra). Depending on the chef’s mood, you may find a refreshing slurry of corn and chickpeas, a spice-crusted sauté of cruciferous vegetables, or something mysteriously identified as moore khulambzu, a tart, runny, complex curry of yogurt and tiny fried-lentil dumplings that is among the best Indian dishes I have ever tasted. At most Indian restaurants, the bargain lunch buffet is pretty dull, an assortment of tame curries that run the gamut from dusty khaki to a sort of mousy brown, but at Woodlands, the lunch buffet seems to be more or less the main point of the place — there are always at least half a dozen regional dishes that never make it onto the menu at dinnertime. And if you ask nicely enough, the chef will even make you a dosa.
Woodlands, 9840 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Chatsworth; (818) 998-3031. Open Tues.–Sun., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5–10 p.m. $7.95 lunch buffet Tues.–Fri., $9.95 brunch buffet Sat. and Sun. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: paneer dosa; gobi Manchurian; moore kulzmbzu. Also at 11833 Artesia Blvd., Artesia; (562) 860-6500.