The Vegetarian Option: Thelewala
In Kolkata (which you may know better as Calcutta) there are street vendors with pushcarts selling snacks and meals on the streets, known as thelewala. In the West Village, the restaurant Thelewala aims to reproduce that same experience here in New York, only "with better hygiene" (as the manager joked to me during my visit). That means casual, unpretentious, and cheap food. Yes, there are kati rolls, as Carey wrote about earlier, but there's a lot more on the menu.
The bhel pori ($5, pictured at top) is a salad of puffed rice tossed with two types of chutney, and mixed with the occasional chickpea, potato, and crumbled crackers. The chutneys make for a potent mix of salty, sour, and spicy, and the puffed rice soaks up all of that. The rest of the ingredients lend texture, if not a lot of flavor. I should point out that when I was first served the dish it didn't have all of the herbs and such sprinkled over it, but when I pulled out my camera to take photos they whisked it back to the kitchen to make it more "presentable". They're a nice but unnecessary touch for something that's meant to emulate food served from a cart.
Peanut masala ($3) may seem like an odd addition to the menu, but this is no mere snack. When you consider how much protein peanuts contain, and factor in the sour lime, sweet red onions, and spicy chiles, you realize you're considering a serious dish. It's laced with more of the crumbled crackers, and like many peanut dishes, it makes for compulsive eating.
A more familiar entree is aloo dum ($7), a "Calcutta-style" dry curry served with two, thin, pancake-like parathas (note: other than the puffed rice featured in some of the chaats, Thelewala does not serve rice). Dry in this case doesn't mean it lacks moisture; it's just drier than the stewed curries served at most Indian restaurants. Packed with large chunks of potatoes that are cooked all the way through without being mushy, it matches wonderfully with the parathas. Despite being a curry, this dish is not spicy at all.
Kolkata lies in the northeast corner of India, and its cuisine is distinctly different from the Indian food you may be more familiar with. As I was eating another customer mentioned to the manager that she hadn't tasted anything like the food at Thelewala before, and she wanted to know if it was Northern or Southern style. Neither, the manager said proudly. It's food from Kolkata. The vegetarian food I sampled justifies his pride, and I'll definitely be back for more.
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Brooklyn-based Eat to Blog.