Review: Udupi Cafe - Tempe, AZ (w/ photos!)
When I was in grad school, every dining hall on campus was certain to have a vegetarian and a vegan selection. Many of my non-carnivorous friends were very thankful that they simply were not pointed to the salad bar and told to enjoy. Some of the dishes were interesting and often led to discussions at the dinner table.
After the dust settled, my philosophy on vegetarianism was summed up in one very simple sentence: If the Good Lord didn’t want people to eat cows, they would have defensive shielding.
Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy some vegetarian dishes. I do. I love vegetables. However, their flavor is greatly enhanced by beef, pork, chicken, lamb, etc. My world. Welcome to it.
However, if I were to become a vegetarian, I would all but live at Udupi Cafe on north Scottsdale Road in Tempe. This delightful place is south of McDowell and in a strip mall next to a laundromat. I was encouraged by an attorney at my workplace to try it because of my fondness for Indian food.
Of course, I had to drag Dave the Roommate and Neil out for a test drive of Udupi. We made our way to north Tempe and pulled into the parking lot. Udupi sits on the south end of the strip mall and parking can be difficult because of the number of patrons at the laundromat. We did find a place close, however, and ventured into the eatery.
We were warmly greeted by a very nice man who seated us at a table for four and provided us menus. The interior was clean, bright and cheery, although there wasn’t much in the way of decorations. A few Indian artwork pieces were on the stark, white walls and some plants were all that provided color to the place.
The menu was substantial and we spent many minutes deciding on what to order. In the meantime, our server had taken our drink order. Neil and I got Iced Teas ($1.25 each) and Dave got a Diet Pepsi ($1.50). A staff member arrived a few minutes later with our drinks and to fill our water glasses. Our server then returned and we placed our order. Since the place focused on Indian cuisine of the south (instead of the north that most restaurants in the U.S. feature), I went with their specialty, which was a dosai, a huge, thin, rice and lentil crepe. I ordered the Butter Masala Dosai ($6.50). Neil decided to go with the Paper Masala Dosai ($6.50). Dave bypassed the dosai and opted for the Makhni Kofta ($8.50), a cheese and tomato dish. For the table, we decided to split an order of Palak Paneer ($8.50) and some Paratha bread ($2.99). For appetizers, we split orders of the Vegetable Samosas ($2.99), the Mixed Vegetable Pakora ($3.99) and the Medhu Vada ($3.50), which were lentil donuts.
We were taking in the atmosphere and listening to the traditional Indian music over the PA system when we noticed the place filling up with customers. This surprised us since it was fast approaching 9 PM.
Minutes later, our Mixed Vegetable Pakora arrive. On the plate was a mixture of various vegetables breaded and deep fried. The vegetables were onions, potatoes, cauliflower and jalapeno peppers. They came with two sauces: a mint and cilantro chutney and Sambar, a sweet and smokey sauce featuring tamarind. The pakora was very good, although I thought the breading was a bit too dense. The jalapenos were whole, so they had us reaching for our drinks in short order. The sauces were excellent.
Our next appetizer was the Vegetable Samosas. I love these and it really takes a lot of effort to mess them up. Udupi’s version was great; full of flavor and very crispy. The filling was a mixture of potatoes, peas and onions and they were delicious. We finished those off in record time.
The Medhu Vada were very interesting. I only had a smidgen of a taste, but Dave and Neil really enjoyed these. Two large donuts of lentils and flour were deep fried and served with a variety of dipping sauces. Neil said they were light, salty, tasty and satisfying. I doubt Homer Simpson would like these kind of donuts, but the table did enjoy them greatly.
We were in a waiting mode for about 15 minutes when our entrees arrived. My Butter Masala Dosai literally filled my entire space. The thin rice and lentil crepe was easily 18 inches in diameter and was folded in half. Hiding in the middle of the crepe was a mound of butter-drenched potatoes and spices. The crepe was crispy on the edges and soft as you approached the center. The flavor was subtle, with a slightly salty, slightly savory taste. The potatoes were outstanding with a good concentration of butter flavor and some body to the potato chunks. Mixed with the chutneys and Sambar, this was a wonderful dish that I will rave about for a long time to come.
Neil’s Paper Masala Dosai was almost identical to mine except for the fact that the crepe was crispy all the way through. The crepe had small holes in the dough and you could hear the crunch in each bite. Neil was thrilled with his choice and also loved the butter, spice and potato mixture that was waiting for him inside the crepe.
Dave’s Makhni Kofta was a serving dish filled with homemade cheese in a tangy tomato and cream sauce. The dish was bubbling hot and fried onions and cashew garnished the top. Dave took a bite and said, “Wow.” I tried a taste myself and it was fantastic. It wasn’t overly pungent or acidic from the tomatoes. Instead, it was thoroughly creamy and the cheese cubes were soft, but solid and gave the dish a great texture character.
The Palak Paneer arrived and it looked amazing. The top had been covered with crunchy fried onions and the dish was a dark green from the spinach leaves. We all were enthralled with this version and the mixture of the cheese cubes, spinach and onions made this one of the best palak paneers I have ever had in my life. Simply incredibly delicious.
The final arrival at our table was the Paratha. We all giggled when it arrived because it was the size of a football. The bread was a whole wheat dough that had been deep fried which caused a multi-layer effect on the inside. The bread was stellar. Hearty, slightly chewy and light, the frying process really make this great. What a wonderful treat.
We devoured just about everything on the table and had no complaints about the food at all. It was a feast with a great taste of exotic spices and lots of vegetables. But we did save room for dessert, so we each got something to round out the meal. Dave went with a bowl of homemade Vanilla Ice Cream ($2.50). Neil opted for the Falooda ($3.99), a vermicelli, milk, ice cream, rosewater and carrot mixture. I decided on the Kulfi ($4.50), a crunchy almond ice cream with rice noodles.
We waited about five minutes and our desserts arrived. Well, two of them. Dave’s vanilla ice cream was two large scoops of the frozen dessert. There were no topping or garnished, but Dave loved vanilla, so he was happy. He said it was obvious the ice cream was not from a container from the local distributor, but was rich, creamy and subtle.
Neil’s Falooda was a very pretty dessert. A fountain glass had a shot of rose syrup in the bottom and then filled with milk. A scoop of ice cream was added and the whole thing was topped with sweetened, grated carrots. We all tried a taste because we were curious and I thought it was quite good. The rose syrup wasn’t my favorite, but I thought the ice cream and carrots were a good combination. Neil was very pleased with the selection.
I patiently waited for my Kulfi and was a bit surprised when it was set in front of me. I pondered in my mind how this cup of a hot beverage could possibly be almond ice cream. Then, I burst into laughter when I realized that our server hear me say “coffee” instead of “kulfi.” Ah, the joys of diction. In any event, the coffee they gave me was their house Mysore Coffee ($1.99) which was a filtered coffee with rich cream. It was an exceptional cup of coffee, and while I would have liked to have had the Kulfi, I wasn’t displeased with the mix up.
We finished our desserts and requested the bill. The total was $63.87 which included tax. We felt this was a great value, considering the freshness and quantity of the food. The service is hard to describe but it was decent, but the place is very laid back and so it can be plodding at time. If you are in a hurry, you will hate the service. Otherwise, you will find it acceptable.
One two other occasions, I had the joy of visiting Udupi during lunch. On a recent Wednesday, some of the work crew and I went and had their weekday, all-you-can-eat buffet ($7.99). There were about 10 different dishes available, mostly vegan, but all very good. On a Sunday, Neil, Dave and I returned to Udupi and had their Weekend Buffet ($10.99) which featured a couple of additional choices from the weekday buffet and a second dessert. Both buffets were delicious and worth every penny. The best part is that they bring unlimited butter masala dosai to your table to go with your meal. Yum.
I give a big thumbs up to Udupi. The flavors are great, the food is excellent, the people are warm and friendly, and you get a great value for your dollar. I can also say that if there were more vegetarian places like Udupi, I could probably become a vegetarian.
However, if the Good Lord did not want us to each chickens, they would have phasers and photon torpedos.
1636 North Scottsdale Road
Tempe, AZ 85281
Notes: Lunch buffet served every day from 11 AM to 3 PM (prices higher on weekends and holidays).
Additional photos can be found at www.feastinginphoenix.com
I'll add two items to this excellent review:
1) Udupi is a great place for dining with kids, albeit ones with adventurous palates. I alway see plenty of families there, and most of the south Indian specialties are designed to be eaten with the hands.
2) Although Udupi has no liquor license, the owner has been gracious about accomodating BYOB during my visits. When he saw our bottle of wine, he promptly brought glasses and a corkscrew to the table, and there was no corkage fee. Of course, I think that Udupi's zesty food goes best of all with beer.
Udupi is one of my very top favorite restaurants of any description in the area. Not only do we think it serves the best Indian food in the Valley, we think it serves some of the best food, period. The menu is vast and mostly mysterious to us, but we've been very slowly working our way through. No matter what else we order, we always make sure to include one of the dosai. The only problem with dining at Udupi is that we always overeat . . . and even so, end up with leftovers that make another lunch for me.