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Oct 18, 2013 12:02 AM

South Indian traditional

In southern India I ate at dining halls where you sat at long communal tables and ate off banana leaves. Food was brought around in brass buckets by boys in dhotis (or whatever they are called down there) and dished out. Is there any place in greater L.A. that recreates this experience?

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  1. Dave, in recreating this experience, are you talking about the food or the boys in dhotis?

    1. The whole gestalt. South Indian food. Communal tables. Eating off banana leaves with your fingers, and servers in dhotis. Come to think of it, not all were boys but I think they all must have been Brahmins. Strict Hindus won't accept water -- or food cooked with water -- from a lower caste than theirs. A Brahmin server is good to go regardless of the customer's caste.

      I have found restaurants that serve the food, but you have to order everything in small a la carte portions. It simply isn't the same experience when you have to eat it at individual tables, from ordinary crockery, with fork and spoon.

      13 Replies
      1. re: LADave

        Rajdhani in Artesia is the closest thing you'll find in a restaurant setting. On the other hand, you could also go to one of the Sunday feasts at the Hare Krishna Temple in Laguna Beach.

        1. re: Moomin

          Hare Krishna food is a cuisine in its own right, not from any specific region of India anymore. Rajdhani apparently serves vegetarian Gujarati food which is somewhat northern although it is not the non-vegetarian Mughlai cuisine that the majority of L.A.'s Indian restaurants serve.

          South Indian food is different. The rice is medium-grain, red or something similar, nothing like Basmati. Instead of dal you get sambar and rasam. Chutneys are often coconut-based and veggies are prepared differently.

          This doesn't come into play in fixed-price main meals, but southern snacks are also distinctive. Idlis (steamed rice dumplings), dosai (thin, crispy crepes), uttapam (thicker crepes with chopped chili, onion, tomatoes and whole spices in the batter), upma (seminola with spices etc.), vada (fritters). Accompanied by coffee rather than tea.

          Unfortunately southern Indian food is hard to find even without the traditional setting. I think the Krishna feasts probably have a lot of that setting and Rajdhani may have some of it, but without the cuisine.

          I'm using "south Indian cuisine" in a broad sense. A native person could object that there are dozens of cuisines according to exact place, caste and even the gender and household status of the diner. For example widows have their own sub-cuisines because they are not supposed to eat certain things.

          1. re: LADave

            There are several South Indian restaurants in So. CA, if that's what you want. Your OP asked for South Indian restaurants that served food communal style, on banana leaves, etc.

            Try Woodlands. They do a decent buffet of idli, vada, sambhar, various veggies, etc. and they will bring our a fresh dosa for you too. The menu changes each day. Or you can order off their a la carte menu.

            India Sweets and Spices in Canoga Park has very good South Indian food in a casual environment -- various dosas, uttapam, idli, vada, with sambhar, and coconut chutney. I've heard the food at the other locations is spotty, but we like the Canoga Park one (we are Punjabi). My husband went to school in Madras, and he likes the dosa and idli there. Most (Indian) people we know will eat there too from time to time.

            There's also Paru's in Hollywood. Haven't been there in a while, but it's been there for years.

            Out of curiosity, how long ago did you go to India? You mentioned different castes of people eating different foods, not being served by lower castes, widows eating different foods, etc but that's a very dated concept, or seen only in very poor villages that are still behind the times.

            1. re: boogiebaby

              Boogiebaby - It was many years ago and things have undoubtedly progressed since in may places. I suppose the glass is half full. India's middle class is at least as large as ours in the U.S. And half empty. At least a half billion population lagging behind.

              Have you visited ? You have to dig past his recent cosmopolitan work on european and east asian "thalis", but Ramki has interesting material on cuisines as ultra-specific as I mentioned.

              I suppose the most traditional -- and cheapest -- mass dining venues would be the last to set aside the practice of having only Brahmin cooks and servers. Breaking those rules would alienate some clientele while following them looks harmless. Even if it really isn't.

              Anyhow thank you for the leads. Getting some South Indian breakfast is on my list for this weekend. I think DW and I can just about manage to eat our way through the usual suspects.

            2. re: LADave

              Yes. I was more focused on your request for a particular gestalt rather than the food, per se.

              For idlis and dosai and uttapam I'd go to Woodlands or Udipi Palace. If you don't want to drive you could go to Annapurna... but it isn't nearly as good. Incidentally, the only restaurant with uppuma on the menu in the entire county is Woodlands, it's excellent.

              Most South Indians that I know happily frequent the Gujarati chaat houses like Surati Farsan Mart and Jay Bharat, where they order South Indian food. The cuisine is not too hard to find, but the gestalt is not really going to be something you can easily track down.

              As to Mayura, it's more of a pan Indian menu with some Keralan specialties. It may not satisfy you.

              1. re: Moomin

                "Incidentally, the only restaurant with uppuma on the menu in the entire county is Woodlands"

                Not that I can vouch for it's chow worthiness but India Sweets and Spices also has upma on it's menu under its South Indian Food specialties category

                1. re: Servorg

                  I couldn't believe that an Indian restaurant back in Washington D.C. wouldn't also have this on their menu, and sure enough Saravana Palace has it on their "House Specialties" section (and while I didn't peruse the menus I saw a half dozen NY Indian restaurants that supposedly offer it as well).

                  ADD: And Dasaprakash, a NorCal restaurant has two types listed

                  1. re: Servorg

                    Shows what I know... I'd be very intrigued to know whether they're using a wheat, rice, or sago base for it. I love uppuma, and I work relatively nearby. I may have to drop in and try it.

                  2. re: Moomin

                    It would be great to have format AND food in one package but it seems to be either/or. Perhaps the Hare Krishnas are the only ones with the feeding-the-multitudes format Too bad it means sitting through hours of proselytization, and the food is just something else entirely.

                    As for the food per se, I have attempted the southern rice meal at home with sambar and rasaam mixes from Bharat Bazaar on Washington. There is also a coconut to sacrifice for the distinctive chutney. This still needs some refinement but is within grasp, to a point where driving to Artesia or deep into the SFV for the food without the format doesn't seem like such a great idea anymore.

                    Moving along past the rice meal in the OP, the breakfast snack items ARE a draw, if well prepared and the selection is reasonably complete. Some are harder to cook at home. I have never managed to make a really thin, crisp dosa. Idlis should be steamed in a special tray. Vadas are deep fried. Also these things are traditionally eaten early, not for brunch or lunch. Most places here don't seem to open until lunchtime.

                    1. re: Moomin

                      Valley India Cafe has uppama on its menu, too

              2. Nothing like that around here. Rajdhani in Artesia does AYCE Gujarati food, but its at tables and they come around and serve you in a thali..

                1. I don't think Rajdhani serves South. Indian food which is a huge category to begin with. Woodlands Artesia might be your best bet (if it's still there). Indian Sweets & Spices on Sherman Way & Topanga is ok, but I wouldn't call it a restaurant. Valley India cafe on Topanga is my current Favorite

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Kalivs

                    But Woodlands isn't ladeling anything out of a cauldron, and Rajdhani is. It seems OP is looking for an "experience" (or, kitsch, in America) above and beyond the food.

                    OTOH, Woodland's beetroot poriyal is straight up dreamy.

                    Last I checked, Udupi Palace was the defacto choice for S. Indian in LA.

                    1. re: TonyC

                      Agree that Rajdhani seems like a good match for setting (you pay a set price and the waiters come and refill your tins to your heart's content) but the food is not from South India let alone Kerala.

                  2. I don't think you're going to get the banana leaf thali experience you're looking for in LA but there are some good spots to eat on plates - and no one will look at you askance if you eat with your fingers.

                    In addition to Paru's which is pretty good if you can get past the 80's security entrance and chlorine smelling 'courtyard' there is an excellent Keralan restaurant called Mayura. It's in a strip mall at Venice and Motor. Great buffet with all the traditional south Indian sides and dishes.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: mrgreenbeenz

                      I second the recommendation for Mayura!

                      They have another outpost called Mayura Amrit on Jefferson in South LA, but it's a much more casual affair. The Mayura on Venice is what you want.

                      Haven't been there for the buffet, but have had dinner several times! It has been a while since my trip to Kerala, and I was a teenager, but I never stopped dreaming about the dosas and Mayura does a pretty good job of reconnecting me to to that!

                      1. re: amvought

                        i would recommend skipping the mayura lunch buffet entirely.

                        1. re: westsidegal

                          I agree with your opinion about the lunch buffet, but the a la carte menu is not so bad.

                      2. re: mrgreenbeenz

                        I live in Culver so Mayura is close.. I'll definitely give them a whirl. Thanks!