When out-of-towners ask me where to see "real New York," or when I'm looking to feed eight people for $40, or when I've decided that my cholesterol is just too damn low and in need of some butter, I have one easy answer for where to go: an out-of-the-way temple in suburban Flushing that just happens to make the best dosas in the city.
The Ganesh Temple Society of North America has had a presence in Flushing since the early '70's, when it acquired its building from a Russian Orthodox church. In the years since it's been a gathering point of worship and community for the area's Desi population. These days, as Indian families continue to move farther out into the 'burbs, it's one of the only markers of an Indian community in this neighborhood in transition.
The temple's received considerable attention from non-Indians over the years thanks to its basement canteen, a no-frills space that stands in stark contrast to the ornate design work on the facade and upstairs. But it's this cavernous space where worshippers can get a filling meal for a few bucks a head—no item exceeds $7—before heading back for more prayer, sometimes an all-day affair.
The food, much of it from Tamil Nadu in the south of India, centers on dosas, enormous crepes made from a fermented rice and lentil batter cooked on a griddle until shatteringly crisp and buttery, then filled with a starchy stuffing, often potatoes jazzed up with onions and spices.
If you'll allow me to quote myself from last year's dosa hunt (which featured the temple heavily), a great dosa should have "a bit of chew on the interior and an almost glassy crust on the exterior." The tangy batter should be balanced by deep, browned butter notes and a well-spiced complementary filling. And it should be served with condiments that highlight its flavors rather than obscure them.
The cooks at the Ganesh Temple Canteen nail all of this and then some, and if you're looking to get your feet wet in New York's dosa scene, know that a meal at the temple may ruin you for restaurants elsewhere. The basic Masala Dosa ($4.50), stuffed with turmeric-stained potatoes, some onion and mustard seed, and a bit of spice, is just beautiful, the crepe's crust lacquered with butter that cracks with an audible crunch, the dough nice and tangy, the potatoes gently spiced and not too soft.
But the real treasures are less typical dosas, like the extra-peppery Pondicherry Masala ($6.50) or the blazingly hot Special Hyderabadi Dosa ($6) filled with a paste of tongue-searing green chilies and cilantro (potatoes come on the side). Or my absolute favorite, the Spicy Butter Paneer ($6) filled with potatoes, onions, and cubes of paneer (a northern rarity for a southern kitchen), all awash in a well-spiced butter that'll keep you licking your fingers.
You can also get your dosa unfilled, and there are legitimate reasons to do so. Try the Paper Dosa ($6) for the comical enormity of the thing—it overhangs two large styrofoam plates laid next to each other and has an extra-thin crust that breaks off in shards. The Ghee Roast ($5), an upright cone that sweats butter from its pores, is even better, so intensely buttery that its flavor verges on salted toffee.
There are also DLOs—dosa-like objects—cooked on the same griddle but made with different batters. I'm partial to the temple's Rava Masala Dosa ($6.50), a lacy semolina dosa with wheaty, nutty flavors that surge up in the absence of fermented tang.
Puffy Uttapam and smaller, crumpet-esque Set Dosas ($5) are thicker and more pancake-like, especially good for sopping up sauces.
Beyond dosas you'll find savory grain and legume porridges, because after you've tasted five kinds of lentil and rice crepes you definitely want some lentil and rice stews. The Besi Bele Bath ($4.50) is more subdued than ingredients like tamarind and asafoetida would suggest, and it lacks the sourness that often defines the dish, but the soft rice and lentils mixed with firmer, fried legumes take on a comforting texture and pleasantly mild flavor. Upma ($3.50), semolina cooked with vegetables until soft, also makes good sick-people food.
I always save room for the rices ($2), served at room temperature, of which the temple usually offers two: one cooked with tamarind for a sweet and sour flavor balanced by considerable butter, and one set into a proto-custard with plenty of tangy yogurt. This curd rice is often eaten at the end of a meal, not that you'll need it, but try it for something akin to Indian mac and cheese, but with more backbone.
All of the dosas and most of the porridges come with sambar and chutney. The former is a tangy soup fortified with—you guessed it—lentils; the latter here is a thick, slightly sweet sauce based on shredded fresh coconut and touches of green herbs and fried mustard seeds. Both are for dunking with your chunk of dosa, which you should of course be eating with your hands. Some longtime templegoers say the sambar and chutney have gone downhill recently, and while I'd agree on the former, I'll admit that the nutty green-tinged sauce of coconut is one of the things that keeps sending me back.
If the temple has a weak point it's their fried food and snacks. Doughnut-like lentil Vadas ($4 to $4.50) are wan and doughy (though to be honest I still love the Dahi Vadas soaked in yogurt); sweet and savory fried snacks near the register often taste stale. But that's alright—dosa specialists often falter at other dishes and the temple gets a lot more right than it needs to.
Food is only half the draw of a visit here—reserve some of your excitement for the post-worship scene of colorful saris and little kids managing to get dosa chunks everywhere on their face besides their mouths. As you wait with your receipt for your number to be called, take a glance at the lo-fi religious programs on the TVs overhead and peruse the small gift shop. Then gather as many napkins as you can and prepare to dig in. Hope you're hungry.