Southern California, despite having a large population of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, doesn't have a sprawling ethnic Indian neighborhood such as ones found in Chicago's West Rogers Park or New York's Jackson Heights.
What we have representing this substantial percentage of the world's population is a narrow, heavily concentrated strip in the sleepy city of Artesia, centered on and around Pioneer Boulevard, just south of the 91 Freeway. The shops extend until the street approaches South Street. That is where the neighborhood becomes purely residential.
This area abounds with sari shops, goldsmiths, appliance stores stocked with low-priced pressure cookers and the stackable metal lunch containers called tiffin tins; also bangle shops, video stores that stock the latest hit movies from such subcontinent heartthrobs as Sanjay Dutt and Siri Devi, and above all, interesting and authentic places to eat.
On any given day (except Monday, when most Indian shops and restaurants around the area are tightly shuttered), you'll see a parade of people crowding their way up to counters for an almost endless hit parade of snack foods, light lunches, exotic ice creams and herb mixtures bound up by aromatic leaves.
Indian food, such as it is in this country, is somewhat limited outside such places as Artesia. Most Indian restaurants around Los Angeles are Punjabi in origin, serving the meaty cuisine of north India.
It's different on Pioneer Boulevard, though, where more than half of the places are vegetarian, mirroring the subcontinent itself. For a better idea about what to expect on this street, envision the four compass points, then eliminate the east, the cuisine influenced by the state of Bengal. The cooking of India's easternmost provinces doesn't exist in Artesia or anywhere else in the Southland.
What that leaves is southern and western Indian cooking--the first being spicy dishes from cities such as Chennai, formerly Madras, and the second a brace of dense, slightly sweet and salty dishes from the Gujurat state, where Gandhi had his ashram. Both cuisines can be considered as options to the richer dishes of north India and adjacent Pakistan, which exist here in force as well.
Closest to the 91 Freeway is Woodlands, a south Indian restaurant that borrows its name from a famous chain of hotels and restaurants in south India, though this restaurant has no connection with it. The cuisine is purely vegetarian, cooked in the style of such cities as Mysore, once home to India's wealthiest maharaja. A statue of Shiva guards the door; penetrating music plays on the sound system. Here, you eat variations on the theme of rice and lentils, along with remarkably delicious chutneys made of coconut, mint and tamarind.
Try vada , crunchy lentil donuts crackling with chili and spice, or Mysore bonda , named for one of India's most picturesque and palatial cities, perfectly fried balls of crisp, spiced potato and chickpea flour. Mysore royal thali is a sumptuous tray of 14 dishes, an amazing show of the complexity of this cuisine. The thali 's dessert, called payasam , is great; it's vermicelli cooked in milk, honey and spices, garnished with raisins.
North Indian Food, Rich and Heavy
Just below Woodlands is the India Restaurant, a clean, fancied-up place with a green carpet, purple tablecloths and white walls, plus a row of Deco-style crystal chandeliers. This is north Indian food, rich and heavy, and most of the business is at lunch, when there is a bountiful buffet every day of the week, even Monday.
This is the only buffet on the street serving fish pakoras, lentil-battered pieces of Alaskan pollock, but the other buffet dishes, such as the impossibly rich vegetable patties in cream sauce called vegetable korma or chicken makhni , chicken cooked in the tandoor, or clay oven, and then stewed in butter, yogurt and tomato sauce, and the impressive variety of spicy stewed vegetables, make this a great deal for $6.45.
The next stop for a north Indian meal is the Little India Grill, owned by Indians from the Fiji Islands, where there is a large Indian population. This is some of the best food on the street, but it's a very modest place. At lunch, $5.99 buys you a small plastic tray that you can fill, all-you-can-eat style, with goat curry, tandoori chicken, stewed eggplant, a pea and carrot curry, the vegetable fritters called pakoras, rice, lentils and all the hot naan bread you can eat.
Just behind the grill, in a large strip mall called Artesia Town Center, are two of the more unusual stores here. One is Asian Sweets and Spices, a Pakistani grocery that is the only store for halal meat or Pakistani video rentals around here. The other is a small, inviting Portuguese bakery called Portazil Pastry, which serves as a de facto social club for the many Portuguese speakers who live nearby, most of whom are from the Azores.
India and Portugal have a long connection, because Portugal had many colonies in India well into the 1960s, Goa and Diu being just two of them. The bakery specializes in the sweet custard tarts called natas , a made-from-scratch Portuguese sweetbread, $3.50 a loaf, and wonderful cheeses such as Serrinha and Lourias, both imported from Portugal.
(Also on Pioneer Boulevard since 1952 is Artesia Bakery, a Dutch bakery where you can find specialty cakes and cookies from Holland, such as the spice cake speculaas and olle bollen , a deep-fried doughnut with raisins and cherries.)
Restaurant Version of Roadside Stand
Continuing down Pioneer, you come to a crowded mini-mall that is home to Ambala Dhaba, and its sister restaurant, Ambala Sweets and Snacks, where you'll eat off plastic plates and pour your own ice water--you'll need a lot of it.
A dhaba is, in Punjab, a small roadside food stand. This little place sells foods that you'd eat at a dhaba ; the best goat curry on the street, in the form of a heavily sauced red stew, various spicy chicken dishes and a wide variety of homemade kulfi , a frozen confection that is like tropical ice cream, with flavors such as saffron and pistachio.
The sweet shop is one of five scattered in the neighborhood. All five of these places offer vegetarian cuisine, carry more than a dozen snacks, and about two dozen sweets, most of which are based on sugar and heavily reduced milk. Papri chat , a snack of crunchy wheat flour crisps, yogurt, potatoes and various sauces, is especially good here, as is a nice tray lunch for $2.99, stocked with stewed vegetables, oven hot bread, rice, pickles and chutneys.
The four other sweet shops have their own character--and individual specialties. The newest is Lovely Sweets and Snacks, remarkable only for a nice, all-vegetarian lunch buffet. Standard Sweets and Snacks is the best laid out of the snack shops, a spacious room with an abundance of mirrors and twirling fans to cool things down on hot days. Masala kaju , spiced whole roasted cashews, and the rava masala , a crisp, south Indian-style onion-infused crepe, are wonderful here.
Bombay Sweets and Snacks is the only snack shop that labels items by taping the names onto the glass display case. Sit on the shop's pleasant mezzanine and order fare such as makai roti sarson ka saag , corn-flour pancakes topped with spiced mustard greens, the best spinach onion pakoras around, and for dessert, amarti , bright orange, honey-drenched lentil flour crisps.
At Surati Farsan Mart, the most modern and diverse of all the snack shops, you get to choose from 27 sweets and 31 snacks-- farsan in Gujurati. The focus of this menu is farsan . Gujurati foods such as sev , wispy fried yellow noodles, and undhyoo , an amazingly complex casserole of vegetables for $1.99. This place has wonderful chum chum , a milk sweet that is often fashioned to resemble sliced fruit such as watermelon. The op-art-colored badam-pisa-kaju barfi is chock-full of goodies such as cashews, coconut and heady spices. You order from a service counter and then grab a table, if you can find one. They even ship nationwide, by UPS.
The best thing that can be said about the north Indian restaurant Ashoka the Great is that it seems to be quite popular with people not from the subcontinent, who crowd in here for an unremarkable lunch buffet. I'd prefer a meal across the street at Shan, a Pakistani restaurant with a terrific-and well-stocked lunch buffet, plus a dinner menu chock-full of mutton and lamb specialties. Two of the best are Bihari kabab , an excellent barbecued lamb marinated in papaya juice and red chili, and mughaz masala , curried lamb brains.
We end our culinary tour, at the south end of the street, the way we began, with vegetarian foods.
Jay Bharat is a modest Gujurati cafeteria with a large sign over the counter that says 'eat vegetarian for health and happiness."
Some of these foods are unavailable elsewhere in the area. Patra is a deep-fried snack consisting of pandanus leaves rolled around a spiced lentil filling that you eat with tart tamarind chutney. Ragda pettis is cooked potato in a yellow sweet pea soup, topped with onions, sev and spicy chutney.
Finally, there is Udipi Palace, a spotless little restaurant that serves the Brahmin vegetarian fare from Udipi, in India's southern state Karnataka. The restaurant is owned by the Shetly family, part of a large clan called Udipi Bunts. The food tends to be buttery, unless you order the basics, such as iddly , a rice-flour dumpling, and sambar , the lentil broth that generally accompanies it.
Most of the people you'll see in here will be eating a masala dosa , a long, cylindrical crepe filled with a spiced potato filling. Uthappam are Indian style pancakes with things such as tomatoes, peas and onions in the batter. If the entire world is ever forced to become vegetarian, the subcontinent has a giant start on the rest of us.
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India by Way of Artesia
1. Ambala Dhaba, 18413 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 402-7990.
2. Ambala Sweets, 18433 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (562) 402-0006.
3. Artesia Bakery, 18627 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 865-1201.
4. Ashoka the Great, 18614 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 809-4229.
5. Bombay Sweets and Snacks, 18526 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 402-7179.
6. India Restaurant, 17824 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 860-5621.
7. Jay Bharat, 18701 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 924-3310.
8. Little India Grill, 18383 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 924-7569.
9. Lovely Sweets and Snacks, 18511 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 809-3141.
10. Portazil Pastry, 18159 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 865-1141.
11. Shan, 18621 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 865-3838.
12. Standard Sweets and Snacks, 18600 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 860-6364.
13. Surati Farsan Mart, 11814 E. 186th St., Artesia. (562) 860-2310.
14. Udipi Palace, 18635 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia. (562) 860-1950.
15. Woodlands, 11833 Artesia Blvd., Artesia. (562) 860-6500.