Can I beg you to close your eyes and give Udipi Cafe a try? I say close your eyes, but not because I have kids’ party games of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey on my brain. (Yes, Little Friend’s birthday doesn’t roll around until December, and yes, I’m already scheming party ideas, and no, I haven’t had the perfect vision strike me between the eyes just yet, and finally, no, I’m not certifiably crazy, but pretty darn close.) Initially, you’ll have to close your eyes as you pull into Udipi’s parking lot, because the rock quarry tower hunkered next door and the general aura of desperate convenience store may seem more appropriate for the setting of a Cohen Brothers’ crime scene than a gem of a Southern Indian vegetarian restaurant. So trust me on this one, close your eyes and don’t peek. Do walk in the door and inhale the scents of cardamon and incense. Sit down. Order. Eat.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit intimidated by the menu. I’ve never travelled to Southern India, so I’m trusting by the number of South Asians crammed around the tables near me, the food here is good. But that doesn’t help me narrow down my selection. If you’re looking for a technical discourse on the merits and subtleties of Indian food, may I kindly direct you elsewhere? I’m not the gal for the job when an authority on Indian cuisine is required.. However, I do appreciate well-cooked food, whatever flavor, nationality, or guise it may assume. For a mouthwatering bite of something edible, I’ll gladly brave the unknown. So back to Udipi Cafe’s menu and my inexpert opinions.
For my initial visits to Udipi, Big Friend and I consistently ordered the popular favorites, chana masala and mutter paneer, from the lunch specials. The mutter paneer (my choice) surely had a bit of some addictive substance dissovled into the thick curry sauce, because every couple of weeks, I HAD to go back for my next fix. Taking uncertain baby steps, I have since weaned myself from the mutter paneer long enough to discover other horizons of scrumptiousness simmering in the kitchen pots of Udipi Cafe. Fortunately for my tastebuds and tummy, Big Friend’s friend Prakash took the time to scribble down some recommendations based on his expert foodie authority.
Clutching Prakash’s creased, lined-paper list, I semi-confidently ordered (and mis-pronounced) the chole batura, palak paneer, and tomato rice bath (pronounced that one correctly, I hope) for my most recent lunch at Udipi. While I was not entirely sure what I had ordered, I had enough experience with Udipi Cafe’s perfectly seasoned, generously portioned dishes to be positive I would enjoy a lunch flavored with exotic combinations of spices that yet captured some universal truth of good old fashioned home-cookin’. The chole batura arrived, a dome of fried dough inspired by a lung-full of steam, accompanied by a side of chickpeas stewed in a tomato-tumeric-cinnamon-chili-goodness bath. With a deflating hiss, the batura surrendered to my fork and consented to be dunked in the batura before disappearing into my mouth.
The palak paneer has threatened to overthrow mutter paneer from its throne of favoritism. Covered in a tomato-onion-and spinach sauce, the paneer cheese (creamy, tangy cubes of mouth-melting cheese) is hearty enough to fool any carnivore into thinking some meat is lurking in this truly meatless dish. With the creamy curries reigning supreme during our lunch, it would have been easy for the tomato rice bath to be overlooked. But then we speared a forkful. It staged yet another coup to the throne. It looks innocent enough. Perhaps an Indian version of Chinese fried rice. But that mouthful of rice explodes with flavor and warms with chili heat. The tomato rice bath is an excellent example of why I borrowed three Indian cookbooks from a friend and then let them gather dust as I contemplated how to concoct the intricate medley of spices required for even the simplest meals. Excellent Indian cuisine seems to be one part spices I have in my pantry and three parts sheer alchemy. Which is why, after my quickly aborted experiment with Indian home cooking, I simply choose to return to Udipi Cafe and let the experts work the magic.
I’m not in the least surprised that a quick scan of reviews on Urbanspoon leaves the distinct impression that foodies within a day’s drive agree: Udipi Cafe is Pittsburgh’s standard bearer in excellent Indian cuisine. As for the skirmishes in the reviews over the service at Udipi, let me just say that as we walked out the door juggling our doggie bags, a waiter beckoned for us to pause while he rummaged around behind the counter, eventually emerging triumphant with a mystery flavored Dum-Dum for a wide-eyed Little Friend. We’ve always had polite, prompt service from the wait staff at Udipi Cafe, and I think if the grumpy diners would drop some expectations of saccharine American-waitress cheer, everyone could get along. If you think that the quality of curtains or the number of pieces of flair on a waiter’s striped uniform equals a great restaurant experience, avoid Udipi Cafe. However, if you have the finesse and faith to pay homage to the foodie gods, bow low, close your eyes, and order your first of many meals from Udipi Cafe.
If I haven’t raved enough about how much we enjoy the exotic comfort foods of Udipi Cafe, let me confess that we celebrated Little Friend‘s first anniversary on the planet with a birthday lunch at Udipi. Some parents do Chuckie Cheese, we do vegetarian Indian. Same, same, right? Udipi Cafe is located at 4141 Old William Penn Highway, Monroeville, PA 15146 | (412) 373-5581. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner every day except for Tuesdays.