The mishmash of regional dishes that we Americans think of as "Indian" food mostly comes from the north of that country. Kormas, tandoor-roasted meats, naans, and biryanis all hail from North India and Pakistan and have been largely popularized in the States by Punjabi restaurateurs. Vik's, Ajanta, and Breads of India scatter South Indian dishes throughout their pan-Indian menus, and Pasand brought dosas and sambar to Berkeley more than twenty years ago. But to find the best southern food in the East Bay, you have to travel south. To Fremont, that is.
After hearing several sources rave about Udupi Palace, a vegetarian South Indian chain with restaurants in Maryland, New York City, Toronto, and Sunnyvale, I drove down to a strip mall on the periphery of NewPark Mall in Fremont/Newark to try the chain's sole East Bay outpost.
Udupi Palace specializes in the food of Kanathaka and Tamil Nadu, states on the southeast coast of India. The food of southern India is as different from northern as Swedish is from Sardinian. The Punjabi curries most Americans are familiar with are based on a triumvirate of aromatics -- onions, garlic, ginger -- on top of which are layered pungent spices such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, and cardamom. The foundations of southern cuisine are simpler: coconut, kari (also called "curry") leaves, mustard seed, roasted lentils, and chiles, yielding a cuisine that is wetter, hotter, and nuttier.
Those five flavors dominated the creamy white coconut chutney that came with almost all the dishes we ordered. It was often accompanied by a bowl of sambar, a watery, hot lentil-and-vegetable soup that, along with rice, is served at almost every southern Indian meal.
Both were on hand for dipping two common South Indian breakfast-snacks, vadas and iddlies. Both are made from rice and hulled black lentil (urad dal) flours. For iddly, cooks leave the loose batter to ferment for a day or so before ladling it into oval-shaped molds and steaming it until soft and spongy. I found Udupi Palace's starchy, tangy iddlies a little dry. A thorough dunking into the sambar and chutney was necessary for the iddlies, but the vadas were good on their own. The firmer, cakier vada dough, formed into rings and deep-fried, was studded with scallions and chiles.
Udupi Palace's chaat selection contains subtle southern twists on the standard offerings. For the pakora-like bhajia, onion rings, thin potato rounds, and jalapeño halves are coated in a chickpea-flour batter and fried, but are served with coconut chutney. "Golden bhel" mixed all the components of bhel puri -- puffed rice, chopped onions, potatoes, tiny crispy lentil-flour vermicelli -- in a tangy, sweet golden-hued tamarind dressing.
One page of the menu is devoted to a staggering array of dosas and uthapams. Chaat house regulars will recognize the "masala dosa," a giant, lacy rice and lentil-flour crepe rolled around spiced potatoes, but special rava dosa? Sada dosa?
A paper-thin mysore masala dosa was folded flat into a half-moon, with a lump in one corner. The insides were smeared with a potent red-chile paste similar to North African harissa. The lump turned out to be turmeric-scented mashed potatoes and green peas, which we scooped up with pieces of the spicy crepe to counterbalance the heat, dipping the whole into bowls of chutney and sambar. The curiously named "butter cone dosa" turned out to fit its description. The giant, impossibly delicate crepe was rolled into a perfect eight-inch-high cone, which crisped as it dried so that it held its shape even when we lifted it up and laid it on its side. Hidden underneath was a small bowl of the curried mashed potatoes.
A similar combination of rice and lentil flours go into the uthapams -- in fact, cookbook author Julie Sahni says they often solve the problem of what to do with leftover iddly batter. The Indian equivalent of the frittata, an uthapam is a large, spongy pancake into which spices and sautéed vegetables have been pressed as it cooks on the griddle. The mixed vegetable uthapam we chose was covered with swirls of onions, peas, tomatoes, and slivered carrots. We accented it with little dabs of coconut chutney, sambar, and a pickle so fragrant that a tiny drop of its oil filled the nose with lemon and mustard.
Next to the entrance, a white board lists the contents of the day's South Indian thali. The thali is a complete, multicourse meal that in the south is traditionally served on a banana leaf. Here the leaf was replaced with shiny stainless steel. Looking like a craft kit, eight or nine small metal bowls filled with brightly colored curries, soups, and dals ringed the periphery of a round metal platter. Frilly potato chips and tiny plastic tubs of lemon pickle and ghee mark the center. But that wasn't all: A heaping scoop of white rice, one chapati, and two papadums, along with a banana for good measure, came on a second plate.
Without explanation, it was hard to identify the profusion of flavors and colors. One bowl contained a thin, sour brick-red broth I recognized as rasam. Sambar and a well-spiced yellow dal occupied others. Others included a saucy kidney-bean curry and a thick, stir-fried ragout of eggplant, potato, and kari leaves. My companions and I dipped and tasted our way around the ring, then doubled back for seconds.
On each visit I tried one of the northern Indian curries, and each time it proved to be our least favorite. Each came with rice, papadum, chutneys, and pickles to compose a complete meal for one. Instead of ground nuts and cream, chunky grated coconut and ground lentils smothered the potatoes, cauliflower, and onions in the vegetable korma. It had good flavor but no spark. The peas and pressed-curd cheese in the "panner peas masala" (commonly known as mattar paneer) swam in saffron-hued cream, with none of the acidic tomatoes or sharply aromatic garlic and ginger that normally give these mildly flavored ingredients any life.
Rice is the heart of all South Indian meals, but Udupi Palace does make a few pan-Indian griddled breads. One or two supple, thin white-flour chapatis come with all of the dishes, while parathas merit their own subsection of the menu. Paratha dough is first coiled, then rolled out into a large circle and pan-fried on a well-oiled griddle. It browns and crisps more evenly than the oilless chapatis, and pulls apart in flaky strips. The "Malabar paratha" plate combines one large paratha with coconut chutney, sambar, and lemon pickle, but also includes a large bowl of beet curry. The sweetness of the chiogga beets was subsumed into the savory pink curry thickened with coconut milk.
After such generous, complex dishes, no one had room for any of the sweets. We contented ourselves with sips of mango lassi and the sugary, saffron-flavored condensed-milk soup that came with the thali.
But I discovered the perfect end to the meal when paying for our check. I picked up a couple of foil triangles labeled "pan masala." Inside the foil were packets of glossy betel leaves, secured by cloves, containing shredded coconut, candy-covered fennel seeds, and slivers of betel nut. As you chew (without swallowing), syrupy-sweet gives way to aromatic and then to piney. Then the betel nut releases its juices, and you get a very mild, very fleeting sense of benevolent ease.
Like most strip-mall restaurants, Udupi Palace is clean but light on decoration -- tiled floors, pink and white walls, acoustic ceiling tiles, black-lacquer tables with water goblets and linen napkins. Like Vik's in Berkeley, it draws expats and Indian Americans from all over the Bay Area. The restaurant stays open until 11 p.m. and fills up late; weekdays it hits its peak at around nine, but expect bigger, longer-lasting crowds on the weekends.