Photo by Jessica CalkinsBetween an Indian produce store and seedy liquor mart in Anaheim now stands Rasthal Vegetarian Cuisine, the only county restaurant specializing in the astounding meat-free diet of southern India. This ain't your Green Party fund-raiser spread of bland samosas and lukewarm lentil broth. Rasthal is the type of dive where kaju karela—a peppered, unctuous mush combining cashews with coconut oil and bitter gourds—is among the more conservative dishes, where a chili-laced farina called upma is celebrated with the reverence with which a Punjabi restaurant serves up tandoori chicken. The most familiar items here are the free onions and the glass of water served with every meal.
Rasthal does a brisk business in dosas, rice-flour crepes wrapped like burritos but about the size of a baseball bat. Masala dosas contain buttered onions and potatoes, while the Mysore sada variety is as impressive as the temples of its namesake city. Savory uttapams use lentil-flour rather than rice-flour for their batter, and are stuffed with juicy baked tomatoes—delicious.
If you ache for something vaguely familiar, ask for the kachori, four donut-hole-sized fritters that are stuffed with piquant brown lentils and are fluffier than samosas. Two dipping sauces come with the kachori—an Indian version of sweet-and-sour sauce and an avocado-tinted chutney that could dissolve your tongue if you're not careful.
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The best bet at Rasthal, though, is the thali, the subcontinent's equivalent of a Hungry Man dinner. You grab a steel tray with four circular indentations and two triangular ones and proceed to the buffet table, filling each slot with whatever veggie stews are steaming. Soon comes out unlimited roti, an unleavened bread that falls somewhere between tortilla and pita on the fluffy scale. A bowl of soft basmati rice follows, or, if you want—and you do want—you can ask for khichdi, the same rice pressure-cooked with lentils, now awash in legume zest. Decorate each thali section with the available mint and tamarind chutneys, but beware of the other garnishes—the pickled carrots studded with chili seeds packs a wallop like enriched uranium.
An adjacent room looks as if it's devoted to Chex Mix but is actually a Gujarati chat shop, the Indian equivalent of a candy store. Vats and vats of chat sit behind counters, each with some combination of salted and spiced rice, lentils, beans, nuts, chilis and noodles. Use Rasthal's chat for party favors, and eternal popularity is yours.
Rasthal Vegetarian Cuisine, 2751-2755 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 527-3800.