It's a mob scene on Sunday evening at the Indian shopping center on DeKalb Industrial Way in Decatur. Women in saris and men in Western clothes are wandering over from nearby religious services. There's a gridlock in the parking lot, and one brave soul has decided to step into the middle of the fray to direct traffic, with little success. But no one in the multitude -- save for eager-to-chow me -- seems particularly rushed or frenetic to get where they're going.
Once I'm inside the red-carpeted shopping center, I wind past a small, crowded video store, note the tax accountant hunched over her desk (on Sunday? Poor thing!), peek in the bustling grocery store and stroll down the hall to South Indian Cafe, a new little spot featuring food from the southwest state of India known as Kerala. Given the crowds outside, I'm anxious about a long wait. But when I fling open the door of the restaurant, there's not a soul in sight. What gives?
Maybe it needs time to catch on, but for enthusiasts of the Decatur Indian food scene who've worked their way through the lengthy menus of Udipi, Zyka and Madras Saravana Bhavan, SIC offers some unexplored territory.
You'll need to do some hunting, though. At first glance, you'll see appetizers typical of vegetarian Indian joints: spongy dumplings called idli and vada, and the ever-popular, eye-popping dosa crepes that extend way beyond the perimeters of their plates. Hidden among the listings, though, are dhal vada -- crispy, delicious patties with intriguing spices peaking out around the edges ($3.50). When in doubt about what else to order, go with something fried -- that's not sure-fire advice for every Indian restaurant, but it holds true here. Medhu vada ($3.50) are deep-fried dumplings served with sambar soup for dunking and coconut chutney for globbing on top. Pakoras (veggies battered in chickpea flour and dunked in the ol' fryer) have a nice bite, but don't eat the chilis unless you dig spicy food. They'll have you reaching toward the water glass for relief (by the way, I find the tap water tastes terrible here -- splurge for spring water).
OK, so let's move into curry territory. These are where the Keralan treats are to be found. One of the pleasures of this restaurant is that the food is so cheap you can go a little crazy with ordering and still feel no sting with your wallet. In this economy, that's a welcome treat. For a table of four, I'd get five or six curries, some of which end up being more like saucy accompaniments than main courses.
Coconut trees are prolific in Kerala, so coconut naturally shows up in many of the area's specialties. Thoren ($4.50) is a vegetable dish I haven't savored since my days haunting the Indian restaurants of London. It's a stir-fry of carrots and cabbage with dried coconut and spices that tastes like the ancient, aromatic predecessor to coleslaw. Aviyal ($4.50) is a tasty mush of vegetables stewed in coconut and tamarind. You might poke around in the sauce, trying to discern what vegetables actually compose this dish. Don't bother. They're strangers to most of us, with semi-anglicized names like drumstick, colocasia and ash gourd, but they're tasty nonetheless.
Unlike many of its strictly vegetarian neighbors, SIC serves regional meat dishes. Fish curry ($5.95) is served in a rich, burnt red sauce with a slightly sour, fruity edge to it. The menu suggests ordering moru ($2.95) -- a smooth, custardy buttermilk curry -- to pour over the fish curry with rice. Follow these instructions. It's a perfect illustration of the subtle brilliance of Indian cuisine, the interplay of textures and the endless variations of flavors that can be created by pairing contrasting, yet compatible dishes and condiments together. I feel sorry for folks who gave up on Indian food after a few bites of uninspired chicken curry once at a mediocre restaurant. There's so much more to it.
The other route to go here -- particularly satisfying if you're having lunch or eating by yourself -- is to order a thali, the circular silver tray filled with eight or nine different dishes ($7.95 for vegetarian, $8.95 for non-veg). Usually you get three or four curries (including some that may not be available on the regular menu, such as a fresh, sprightly green bean stir-fry with coconut and black mustard seeds) along with soups, saline pickles to be eaten in small quantities, spiked yogurt raita, a sweet pudding, bread and plain rice. I know it sounds like a lot; don't worry, the portions are small. A bony goat curry in a muddled brown sauce was the only uninspiring thing on my thali during a recent visit.
Desserts are limited to unimaginative ice cream selections and noodle-laden puddings that range from chunky to gluey. Sip on a mango lassi ($2.50) or the startlingly yummy coconut water, a beverage with bits of fresh coconut ($1.50).
I make my way out of the building to find the crush in the parking lot has not let up. Now that I've had my fill of Keralan specialties, I'm more patient. I can't help but think, though, as I sit in my car waiting for someone to let me out, that this ugly mess could be alleviated if some of these people went and grabbed a bite to eat at the lonely little restaurant inside. They don't seem to know what they're missing.