Know your strengths
Folsom, CA 95630
Sambar holds a lofty place on the pantheon of lentil dishes. The soupy stew or stewy soup is a star of Southern Indian food—as well it might be, since it can easily make an appearance at every meal. At Ruchi in Folsom, the sambar is a standout. Its chili-pepper-driven kick holds attention but doesn’t stomp taste buds into submission. Sambar isn’t simply smashed-up red lentils in broth. Just about anything can happen in its murky, poi-consistency depths. Okra. Eggplant. In the Lucas Family Test Kitchen version—an experiment inspired by Ruchi that falls well short of their majestic offering—it’s carrot chunks and bits of green beans.
Ruchi is a delightful Sanskrit word that means “taste” and “flavor” but also puts its abundant arms around “appetite,” “desire,” “pleasure,” “fondness” and “splendor.” Most commonly, the word is found in Sanskrit dictionaries spelled “ruci.” In this case, Ruchi the restaurant is another in a series of strip-mall gems masked by a cheesy tilt-up facade. Such establishments are most commonly found in Elk Grove, Natomas and here at 601 E. Bidwell. Warm orange and mustard walls, fresh sprigs of flowers on each table—heavy on the baby’s breath—plenty of room present a fond but not splendid welcoming opener.
For fans of lunch buffets at Indian restaurants, Ruchi’s version is varied and, relative to other competition, somewhat adventurous. There is, regrettably, the inevitable tandoori this-that-or-the-other but, on the plus side, there is also more than a dozen other options. These include a peppery corn off the cob, a buttery chicken dal sweetened by tomatoes and, for dessert, a bright and creamy mango mousse and rava laddu—sugary semolina balls with a cardamom kick.
Ruchi knows its strengths—and the preferences of their most likely clientele—so sambar is part of the buffet equation, this iteration a little heavier on the green beans than the nocturnal version. Also available this visit is medu vada: fried balls of lentil and rice paste that scream for out for tamarind or cilantro chutney.
Nearby is the tomato upma, akin to vegetable-rich mashed potatoes except using semolina, and a chicken curry. Crunching teeth on chicken bone bits in both the curry and dal is an unpleasant surprise but not fatal to the overall enjoyment of the meal. A flesh wound, as it were. In fact, encountering the two shards is doubtless good for the waistline, since every mouthful thereafter is more tentative. Everyone knows the slower the eating, the swifter the filling up.
A delightful discovery is dosa, which the largely monosyllabic waiter—Arnold Schwarzenegger, the early years—describes as “crêpes.” This is comparable to saying brie is Cheez Whiz. Comparing dosa to crêpes diminishes both. Sure, dosa is stuff wrapped inside a folded shell. But the crispy shell aside, it’s fresh and light. Like sambar, dosa is a Southern India staple. There are nine versions on Ruchi’s menu, all in the $5 to $7 range. The $6.99 spring dosa wins the coin toss, although the onion dosa and the masala version—potatoes and yellow split peas—are close also-rans. The spring is chockablock with diced potato, tomato, cabbage, onions and fairly mild chilies. Here’s a shocker: Dosa is commonly accompanied by sambar. With three well-stuffed “crêpes” to an order, dosa is either for sharing or topping off a bowl of sambar and then waddling home.
Not knowing the scope of the portions—and all at Ruchi are generous—leaves less room to enjoy the lamb chettinad, a—go figure—Southern India curry whose cinnamon, cloves and cumin refuse to go unnoticed.
There’s the usual array of Indian beverages—lassi (come home, girl!)—and a vibrant mango juice, as well as the usual raft of Indian beers including the “premium” Taj Mahal, “slow-brewed in India” but quaffed swiftly in Folsom.
In 10 words or less: Sambar and dosa are seriously rucira at Ruchi.