When Thali began serving vegetarian North Indian dinners at West Street Market, adding lunch seemed likely. Some time later, Maya’s South Indian Cuisine began offering lunches in the same space, with organic, mostly gluten-free, vegan preparations. It’s a partnership of sorts between the chefs—twin “pop-up” restaurants putting down roots with regionally different, yet complementary menus.
As an omnivore, I do love well prepared meaty treats, dairy products, etc. But it’s a backhanded compliment when vegetarian/vegan dishes are described as being “so good you won’t miss the meat.” For me, food is either delicious or not, regardless of the ingredients.
When we arrived at West Street market, the roll-up door was open, so my companion and I chose to sit at the bar facing the street. There are also a handful of tables, with plenty of seating in the common area shared by other eateries. We kept entertained by people-watching while we waited for our meals. Maya’s menu is small, with individual dishes ranging from $5.99 to $8.99. We opted for a pair of four-dish combo platters ($14.99), which allowed us to taste everything available.
Our server offered a small sample of chilled panakam, a popular South Indian beverage made with grated jaggery—an unprocessed cane sugar—ginger, cardamom, black pepper and lemon juice, though lime is often used. It was very refreshing. A full serving is $5.99. Kombucha and South Indian coffee are $5.99 and $2.99, respectively.
Our meals were served on flat, sectioned steel trays—e.g. cafeteria-style. This was fine with condiments and entrees, but the sambar soup—a lentil and tamarind vegetable stew with excellent, spicy flavor—was rendered cold almost immediately. Three small sections contained coconut chutney, tomato chutney and mildly sweet payasam, a sort of golden lentil pudding. The coconut stuff was mild and a little grainy, the tomato very smooth and quite spicy. Payasam I could take or leave.
Fried items are done with rice bran oil rather than clarified butter. We were encouraged to dunk everything in the condiments, and dunk we did. Idli—patties of steamed rice and black lentil—were kind of spongy with a texture akin to steamed pork buns. Kuzhi paniyaram are made of a similar batter, cooked stovetop in a multi-pocket covered pan, reminiscent of muffins. They were crispy and fluffy with a creamy, almost buttery interior.
Dosa—a thin crepe made of fermented rice and black lentil—is the item I most associate with South Indian food. The plain crepe is meant to be dunked or used to scoop up food, but I like the crispy edges on their own. They have a really tangy flavor I find irresistible. The texture reminds me a of Ethiopian injera flatbread, just thinner. A masala dosa was stuffed with a spiced mixture of yellow potato and onion. A side of the same masala was served along with wheat poori flatbread, the lone source of gluten on the menu.
A serving of plain Medhu vada—fritters of yet another combination of black lentil and rice—had the appearance and texture of little doughnuts, perfect for dunking. Sambar vada was exactly that, little savory doughnuts swimming in soup. They’ll bring you more chutneys on request, but I was too full and happy for another bite.