Atop a newish mini-mall in Artesia’s Little India, Tirupathi Bhimas is a glowing flying saucer of a restaurant, a circular second-story dining room ringed by windows that look out toward other new mini-malls — sari emporia and jewelry stores and sweet shops outside as far as the eye can see. During the dinner hour, Tirupathi Bhimas is as jammed as a Cheesecake Factory — it even has those buzzing paging devices that erupt into flashing lights when your table is ready — and you could probably cast a Bhangra video from the ranks of the chic Desi teenagers that seem to throng the place. Dosas come out the size of refracting telescopes. Thick, sweet lassi flows like water. The waiters are more sharply dressed than you.
The idea of an Indian restaurant as club-kid hangout is nothing new, and joints like Tanzore and Tantra certainly play up the sultriness of the Indian kitchen, but what is drawing the crowds at Tirupathi Bhimas is fairly orthodox Andhra Pradesh–style vegetarian cuisine, the heavy Southern Indian stuff, without a Bombay mojito or a chakratini in sight.
Even just a few years ago, most of the Indian restaurants on this stretch of Pioneer were pretty generic, vaguely northern or southern Indian perhaps, but except for a couple of vegetarian Gujarati snack shops, not especially regional. When a fancy restaurant with a famous Hyderabad chef opened in the ’90s, the roster of regional dishes may have lasted less than a month before they were swept away in favor of a menu indistinguishable from any other on the street.
But now most of the newer restaurants represent the cooking of a specific area, and Tirupathi Bhimas — apparently related to a hotel in the city of Tirupathi (a famous temple town in the south of Andhra Pradesh) and also to Sri Krishna Sweets, a beloved chain of snack shops that hasn’t yet hit Los Angeles — is about as regional as you can get here. Tamil is spoken and dishes are assumed to be searingly spicy unless specified otherwise. Northern dishes like poori bhaji and the kickball-size channa bhatura are on the menu like the landlubber’s platter at a seafood restaurant.
The menu is small, but the kitchen here churns out all manner of South Indian marvels, from the doughy lentil fritters called vada to steamed rice-flour idly in spicy broth, the crisp, chile-frosted pancakes called pesaret to porridgy pongals both sweet and savory. There is a monster version of uthappam, a tart disk of fermented rice-lentil batter blown out to almost the size of a deep-dish pizza, topped with stewed chiles or vegetables, or, best of all, with what seems like half a can of fancy mixed nuts fried in butter, which makes the dish as gut-bustingly rich as a banana split.
The dosas, crisp, thin pancakes that may be large enough to slipcover a couch, are the biggest in Little India. You will find all the usual rice dishes here: the delicious mess of rice and lentils called bisebele bhath, the yogurty bagala bhath, and jeera pulav, which may be as close to Louisianan dirty rice as it is possible to get in the context of a vegetarian Indian meal.
The standard order at Tirupathi Bhimas is the thali, the traditional combination plate of nine or so stews, soups and grain dishes, spooned into tiny bowls and arranged around the perimeter of a gleaming stainless-steel platter, garnished with a thin pappadum cracker, a pliable round of chapati bread, and perhaps a wad of spiced potatoes rolled into a spliff-size dosa. Will you know what is in the bowls? Probably not, and nobody will bother to explain them to you. Suffice it to say that the spicy Andhra thali will be spicy and the nonspicy thali will be pretty spicy too; that you will run across groovy things like the luscious kootu made with chayote squash, a gravylike kozambhu, a dry-fried vegetable curry or two, pickles, and spicy lentil broth, with a little tin of sweet, saffron-infused rice pudding for dessert.
No trip to Tirupathi Bhimas would be complete without a visit to the Saffron Spot, downstairs in the mall, an Indian ice cream stand where saffron and methi are the chocolate and vanilla, and the kulfi ice cream is the essence of caramelized milk. Sometimes even Desis need to chill.
Tirupathi Bhimas, 18792 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (562) 809-3806; www.tirupathibhimas.com. Open Tues.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m. & 6 p.m.-9:15 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-2:15 p.m. & 6 p.m.-9:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9:45 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking. Catering. MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $16-$24. Recommended dishes: Bhimas special uthappam, spicy Andhra thali, business lunch.
Saffron Spot, 18744 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (562) 809-4554; www.saffronspot.com.