What a dal
Rancho Cordova, CA 95670
The growth in Indian restaurants in this area has not quite kept pace with the growth in the Indian population, but things are starting to perk up. The establishments, though, are often opening in out-of-the-way places. Had it not been for a tip from another publication, I never would have heard about Udupi Cafe—a self-proclaimed “healthy Indian vegetarian restaurant,” emphasizing the intriguing flavors of south India rather than more familiar, often meaty northern-Indian (or Pakistani) cuisine. Well, I’m glad I followed the tip to the simple but bright space, with yellow walls and a placid Ganesh (on a changing digital screen) looking down onto the dining room.
Udupi’s menu, with an emphasis on lentil- and rice-based dishes—iddly, dosai, uthappam, sambar—is very different from what you might be familiar with, though there are enough standbys (pakoras, palak paneer, vegetable biryani, samosas) to make it seem a bit more familiar. More than half the dishes are starred on the menu as being vegan.
We started off with the appetizer platter, a big plate of burning-hot fried things: a samosa; mixed vegetable pakora (slices of vegetables in a puffy, fried chickpea-flour batter); a fluffy and cake-like “lentil donut” studded with whole spices; and a dry, granular lentil patty.
The samosa, with a richly spiced potato and pea filling, was familiar (though I found the vegan crust a touch bland), as were the pakoras; of those, I particularly liked the sweet, crunchy onion variety and the tender, mild eggplant slice. The others took a minute of getting used to, with rewarded perseverance. The star here was the accompanying plate of dips, including dal-like sambal, tamarind and green chutneys, a creamy coconut chutney, and a hotter, tomato-based one. All of these were excellent, in different ways and levels of spiciness, and complemented and cut the richness of the fried items.
Although Udupi’s menu includes some familiar northern Indian dishes, it has a southern-Indian bent that’s unusual for this area; you won’t see a lot of dosai and uthappam around here. We ordered a thirunelveli spinach dosai, on our server’s advice: it was a nice choice, crispy at the edges with a pleasant tang to the browned crepe, folded into a three-cornered shape and filled with emerald spinach punctuated with nutty, slightly crunchy split peas, as well as whole spices, tender bits of potato and a zingy coating of hot tomato chutney. The fresh, just-cooked flavor of the spinach was great, and a striking contrast to the army-green, long-cooked style of spinach purees you often see in Indian restaurants. The spongy, crispy crepe was particularly nice dipped into the creamy, coconutty chutney.
The uthappam is also a pancake made from rice, but it’s topped with vegetables that are cooked right in, and it’s thicker and chewier than the dosai, with a crispy edge and a stronger sour flavor. Visually, the white pancake with bright green vegetables was also very appealing. I wasn’t surprised to hear another table, a family of apparent regulars, ordering the same thing, saying they loved it so much on their last visit that they couldn’t pass it up this time. Thin slices of chile cooked in made the whole big pancake spicy—a time when the honeyed, lightly tangy and vibrant mango lassis we ordered came in handy to salve the burn. There are no alcoholic beverages on offer, but lassis, coffee and tea are plenty satisfying.
We also tried a favorite standby, aloo gobi: curried cauliflower and potatoes in a tomato-based sauce. I loved the freshness of this dish, with just-tender cauliflower and mealy potatoes dusted with a lot of fresh cilantro, as well as long threads of crunchy ginger. It went beautifully with the aromatic, light basmati rice.
A richer dish from the curry section of the menu was malai kofta, cheese and potato balls in a very creamy, mildly spiced sauce. The cheese-potato balls had an oddly gooey, heavy texture, but a nice flavor; the buttery-rich sauce, with just a hint of tomato, was totally delicious, either over rice or when sopped up with the bread we also ordered.
That bread, a huge puff called batura, was one of the highlights of the meal: it came out looking like a golden, fried rugby ball, hot and light. The fried outside was just a little bit greasy, but the yeasty, bready flavor was perfect, and the drama of the presentation can’t be beat. The batura was a white bread, but most of Udupi’s other offerings—poori, paratha with various stuffings, chapathy—are whole wheat.
We left with a giant bag of leftovers—having been tempted into over-ordering by the menu stuffed with enticing options. Our server, who was helpful and friendly throughout the meal, brought a little to-go container of syrup-soaked gulab jamun from the short but sweet dessert menu. With a faint hint of almond and a mealy, moist, dense texture, these round, golden little sweets made a pleasant ending to the meal (and a leftover one was good the next day with a cup of tea, too). I’m not sure they, or some of the more buttery sauces, lived up to the “healthy” part of Udupi’s slogan, but they made a gracious note on which to end a meal. If you’re looking to make some new culinary discoveries this year, check out Udupi; the expedition to Rancho Cordova is well worth it.