Editor's note: Please welcome Anne Noyes Saini, features editor at Real Cheap Eats, oral historian, writer at Chopsticks & Marrow, and Indian food evangelist. Here she is with a dispatch on the latest wave of Indian food in the West Village that goes beyond tikka masala. Take it away, Anne!
Cream-laden sauces and muted spices are still the norm at many Indian restaurants in New York City. But now a few hip, yet modest, Greenwich Village restaurants are shaking things up—offering both homesick Desis and adventurous Americans some surprisingly authentic Mumbai street food, snacks, and home cooking.
Barbecue and Street Eats from Bollywood's Hometown
Masala Times bills itself as "Indian barbecue" served up with unapologetic Bollywood kitsch. But the grilled kebabs are legit—very close to those coming out of the tandoor at restaurants around Mumbai.
The paneer tikka ($9.99)—creamy hunks of fresh cheese marinated in yogurt and mild spices—has a pleasantly smoky edge from cooking over charcoal in a special grill imported from India. Marinated in yogurt, lemon juice, and the piquant spices used to make Indian pickles (aka, achar), the chicken achari ($10.99) is boldly tangy and zesty, dotted with fragrant fenugreek leaves. (Insider tip: Masala Times is BYOB, so you can dash to the bodega across the street and pick up a brew to sip alongside your kebabs, a classic Indian pairing.)
Also don't miss the unda bhurji pav ($6.99), a favorite Mumbai street food. This version combines eggs scrambled with onion, tomato, and spices, topped with tangy-sweet pickled red onions, and piled onto buttery griddled bread rolls called pav (an enduring legacy of Portugal's colonial presence in Mumbai, pronounced "pow"). This dish could revolutionize breakfast sandwiches in New York—if only Masala Times opened before noon.
The Maharashtrian Mother You Wish You Had
A few doors down Bleecker Street at new arrival Bombay Duck Co. you'll find more Mumbai street food and home-style cooking from the state of Maharashtra (home of Mumbai).
Maharashtrian cooking remains virtually unknown in New York City despite its distinct, complex flavors: curry leaf, ginger, cilantro, tamarind, coconut, jaggery (unrefined cane sugar), sesame seeds, and goda masala, a ground spice mixture that makes heavy use of coriander seeds, cumin, and toasted coconut. These ingredients are evident in Bombay Duck's fish curry ($9.95), made from the owners' family recipe. Hunks of mild tilapia float in a tangy-savory gravy seasoned with coconut milk, tamarind, and ample ginger. Eventually the tilapia will be replaced by imported Bombay duck (aka, bombil)—the restaurant's namesake—a soft, white fish that's beloved in Mumbai.
A small line-up of toasted sandwiches ($3.50 to $6.50) offers a rare taste of the kinds of quickie meals Indian mothers whip together with leftovers. The buttery "toasties," filled with everything from sharp cheddar spiked with red chili powder to spiced scrambled eggs, lamb, and crab, come with sides of Maggi Hot & Sweet Sauce (India's spicy-sweet ketchup) and tangy housemade mint chutney. Mix them together and enjoy one of India's favorite condiment mash-ups.
Mumbaikars might take issue with Bombay Duck Co.'s vada pav ($3.50), which omits the customary garlic-chili chutney and substitutes a hamburger bun for the traditional pav. (The latter is an intentional nod to the owners' New Jersey childhoods.) But this vada (deep-fried potato fritter, pronounced "vurda") is too good to dismiss. It's soft inside, with a crisp chickpea flour-battered outer edge, and virtually greaseless. In true Maharashtrian style, it's aggressively seasoned with peppery curry leaf and ample ginger.
Shrug off the purists and load up this exemplary vada with the crisp spicy onions and housemade chutneys: mint and tomato blended with onion, garlic, and cilantro. Gently smash it all together in that heretical hamburger bun and let your taste buds decide if these adaptations spoil the show.
Mumbai Beach Snacks and Fast Food Fusion
Around the corner is Thelewala, a Serious Eats favorite best known for its Kolkata-style Nizami rolls and chaat. These Bengali chaatwalas also make an excellent version of Mumbai's famous beach snack, bhel pori ($5.50). It's a mix of puffed rice, peanuts, salty fried bits (sev and chana jor garam), a few soft hunks of boiled potato, and diced onion tossed with salty-sulfurous chaat masala and sweet and spicy-tangy chutneys. Unlike many sauce-logged Indian chaats in New York, it's crunchy, light, and refreshing—just as it should be.
Wash it down with a can of Limca (think: Fresca) or a bottle of Thums Up (India's beloved cola) from Tastee Curritos, across the street. While you're there, check out the Punjabi-inspired subs and burritos, with fillings like shahi paneer and chicken masala. If you visit a Subway restaurant in Mumbai, you'll find some very similar sandwiches on the menu.
Is this the beginning of a new generation of Indian restaurants in New York City? Tell us, what are your favorite Indian restaurants in town?
About the author: Anne Noyes Saini edits economics books and covers food culture and immigration in NYC. She has contributed to Narratively, The New York Times, and WNYC-FM, and is features editor of Real Cheap Eats. Follow her on Twitter @CitySpoonful.
About the photographer: Lily Chin is a food studies student at NYU and a staff writer at Real Cheap Eats. Follow her adventures in food and photography on her personal blog and on Instagram @avocadolilyHQ.