Passage to India
A Baltimore County restaurant offers dishes rarely tasted outside the motherland
"That dosa is the size of Texas," observed one of my dining companions at Spicy Garden. A split second later, he quickly amended his geography-"I mean, the size of India!" Geographic comparisons aside, it was a helluva big crepe, deep brown and loosely rolled like a jellyroll, its crispy ends jutting over the edge of the red plastic tray, that we watched emerge through the kitchen window of this bare-bones storefront. And of course we had to have one, as well as other less familiar specialties-from utappam to alu bajji-all from Southern India and all adding up to a slightly challenging but totally intriguing dining adventure in West Baltimore.
Tracking down Spicy Garden among the never-ending landscape of Route 40 strip malls poses a small challenge, but a quick search of the internet offers the helpful advice that it is located next to Patel Brothers' grocery in the Westpark Plaza shopping center. Based on the number of Asian diners-many of them multi-generational families-who easily navigated the mostly Southern Indian menu and followed the dizzying plot of the Bollywood epic blaring from the restaurant's television, I'd venture that choice of landmark is apt-more so , anyway, than the Love Ones lingerie shop, also located in the plaza.
Even if you don't know your poori from your parata, the counter staff is friendly and willing to explain the unfamiliar as best they can. They'll also tell you that there's no liquor license yet (and that they prefer that you refrain from bringing any into the restaurant), that the restaurant is self-service, and that water, paper napkins, Styrofoam plates, and plastic forks and spoons are at the long banquet table that runs along one wall (knives are somehow segregated to the counter with the cash register). You place your order, you get a number, you retrieve your red cafeteria tray brimming with food when your number is called. Simple enough.
But navigating the menu is slightly less so if your experience with Indian cuisine has been limited to old Baltimore favorites like Akbar or the Ambassador. Sure, Spicy Garden offers familiar North Indian chat or street food like samosas or entrées like chicken vindaloo or chicken tikka masala. They also have a list of slightly puzzling "Indo Chinese (Fusion)" dishes like chicken Manchuria, described as "chicken fritters with flour and tossed in Manchurian sauce." But a good part of the menu is devoted to "Southern Specialties," including 10 styles of dosa and four utappam, a sort of cross between a frittata and a pancake.
We started there, with an onion masala dosa ($6.50) that came folded into a quarter rather than the stunning rolled arrangement. Presentation aside, the dosa itself was light and crumbly-crunchy around the edges and filled with a generous sprinkle of fried chopped onions and turmeric-laced potato curry. It was utterly satisfying, but next time I would try the Spicy Garden special dosa, a kitchen-sink combination of potato curry, paneer (cheese), onions, and green chilis. A tomato utappam ($6) covered the entire plate. Studded with cubes of tomato, it gained subtle depth of flavor from chilies and mint and was a sweet revelation of complimentary flavors. Each dish was accompanied by fragrant, soupy sambar, a lentil and vegetable stew spiced with tamarind, and dark, sweet tamarind chutney.
Following the sequence of the menu, we next ordered several vegetarian appetizers with varying degrees of luck. Alu bajji ($4.25), light, crispy lentil dumplings flavored with onions and potatoes, touched a familiar comfort food spot, but the chickpea batter that coated mirchi bajii ($4.50), battered whole green chilies, and bound together flaky leaves of chopped spinach in spinach pakora ($4.50) muted their flavor and texture, leaving only a chewy softness in the former, and a generic crunch in the latter. Even for someone once enamored with fried hard crabs, this was too much batter.
Entrées showed more variety (or perhaps we just chose more wisely). Chunks of chicken nestled in the saffron-tinted rice in chicken dumki hyderabadi biryani ($8.95) whose spice snuck up on us, mild and aromatic at first, then slowly and subtly burning with warmth. Kadai paneer ($8.99), one of the day's specials, took familiar paneer and dressed it in a ruddy sauce redolent of tomatoes and peppers, while chole batura ($7) paired an airy puff of fried bread with darkly spiced chickpea curry, my favorite dish of the evening, along with the dosa and the utappam.
Desserts are limited to traditional gulab jamoon and to rasamalai, described as a sweet cottage cheese poached in condensed milk with nuts. If you indulged in a thick mango lassi ($2.99) or sweet masala chai ($1.75) as my table did, dessert seems redundant, though next time, I'd save room just to try.