A Dosa Heaven

Photo by Amy TheligBefore Super Size, before the foot-long hoagie, there was the dosa: a South Indian crepe made of mixed rice and yellow bean flour and stuffed with some sumptuous bulk, griddled until the skin is a glimmering brown and rolled up until its length, width and girth approximates two forearms flexed together. It's the largest solo meal you'll ever encounter—it could easily feed four—and a spectacle unto its own. When a waiter carries out the dosa—its two ends protruding off the plate—and sets it before a newbie, the newbie's eyes invariably widen in anticipatory shock, much like brides used to do on their wedding nights.

The waiter also trots out a couple of sweet and hellishly hot chutneys and provides a small bowl of sambar, a peppery lentil soup. Then comes the spectacle: about 75 percent of a dosa is crisp, slightly buttery skin, so you need to whittle the thing down to find the steaming center. Rip it with your hands, fork through it, whatever—but remember to dip the pieces into the chutney, into the sambar, into your mouth. Now, the center is exposed for the scooping. Half an hour later, dosa scraps and chutney stains will sully your table, and you'll feverishly nitpick every last crumb and glop before the waiter's towel sweeps everything away.

Dosas are rare in Orange County, a region dominated by the tandoori-and-buffet scourge of North Indian restaurants. But you'll never want to sweat through curry again after discovering the edible juggernauts at Dosa Place, a Tustin restaurant that toasts its namesake dish in 16 ways: the masala dosa is bloated with a spiced-potato filling; rava dosa has a paste-colored, cashew-studded lacy skin that appears to be a stretched-out flour burrito; and another dosa comes with nothing inside, just crunchy batter. The Mysore dosa is hollow save for the center, where a saffron-scented ball of potatoes, toasty mustard seeds, onions and tomatoes awaits your eventual discovery. The jam dosa is a gooey, Americanized take on the entrée specially designed for kids but no less impressive, a jelly sandwich for the Trader Joe's set. And a chicken curry dosa unites the best of North and South India in a delicious, cylindrical truce.

But none of the restaurant's listed dosas compare to the off-the-menu kheema dosa. For starters, cooks fold this dosa into a triangle instead of rolling it up like its brothers. The result is as large as a folded American flag presented to a war widow. And unlike the other selections, the cooks load the kheema dosa with meat: ferociously spiced ground goat strewn with raw peppers and cumin. The goat surreptitiously envelops your glands, provoking gentle torrents of sweat upon your forehead and comforting everything else with the goat's velvety touch. The kheema dosa's fluffy crust is the slightest bit gooey like a buttermilk pancake. Smeared with coconut chutney, it's the most memorable dinner you've chomped through in this young year—and will probably have in all of 2005.

There are so many dosas at Dosa Place you'll probably overlook the rest of the platters. Don't. Once in a while, scan over the South India portion of the menu and devote a lunch to the idli, two rice-flour dumplings touched with a molten chile powder, or an uttapam, a flour Frisbee the menu advertises as a pancake but is really more of a veggie-gorged omelete. If you must, there's also smoky tandoori chicken, but you're an ignorant fool to skew that way.

Besides, Dosa Place is also one of the precious few Southern California restaurants specializing in the cuisine of Andhra Pradesh, a coastal state renowned for its temples, bawdy Tegulu-language film comedies and searing tamarind-based platters. One of its four excellent chutneys is finely sieved tamarind pulp; it's bittersweet and should accompany everything. This chutney drives the other tamarind-derived meals: the Andhra-style chicken fry, desiccated chicken chunks patted down with a spiced, dense tamarind fire; puliyogre, basmati rice simmered in a tamarind sauce; and the extraordinary chepala pulusu, fish marinated in tamarind, the tang of the ocean and the fruit of the jungle creating the surf and turf of the ages.


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