The Vegetarian Option: Udupi Palace
When my in-laws immigrated to Chicago from southern India in the 1970s, the Devon Avenue they encountered was just a whisper of its current self. Back then Udupi Palace was one of few restaurants in the city where they could eat the familiar dishes of their native soil. Today the street bustles at full tilt. Dozens of restaurants, lined up practically from Seeley to California Avenue, offer a broad array of Indian and Pakistani cuisines. Northern Indian fare—tandoori chicken, naan, etc.—continues to be the more prevalent export (both in Chicago and elsewhere in America), but Udupi Palace has remained a reliable outpost for the rich, bright, exceedingly sharable, and vegetarian-friendly food typical of the southern subcontinent.
In fact, Udupi Palace serves a completely meatless menu, so the vegetarian diner has free rein to explore. That said, avoid over-ordering appetizers—not that the vegetable samosa, pakora, and vada at Udupi aren't tasty, you just run the risk of filling up on these fried, carb-laden items before making it to the main event, which for me is the delicious selection of curries.
Here's where I break the rule I just established. Because the masala dosa ($6.95) is worth making an exception for. Some consider this a breakfast dish, consumed with a hot cup of milky Indian coffee, but I prefer it as a prelude to dinner—a warm-up to the spices to come. The crepe-like dosa at Udupi is griddle-toasted to a golden brown on one side and left spongy-soft on the other for a perfectly contrasting, delicate texture. Like many of the grains and legumes that make up the raw materials of south Indian breads and other starches, the dried rice and lentils used to make a dosa are cold-soaked in water, usually overnight, to soften them up before they get blended into batter. While Udupi's rendition is mildly savory in flavor, it's not uncommon for dosa batter to be left to ferment, in order to encourage a tangier end product.
Inside you'll find a bright-yellow mash of potato and peas, which has been simmered in masala (a catch-all term for a spice mixture) to a creamy, yielding softness. The dosa itself is the surrogate utensil; tear a piece off and claw some of the filling with your fingertips. Accompanying the dosa are small cups of sambar (lentil-based vegetable soup) and chutney (a cilantro-spiked coconut puree), which you can employ like condiments.
On to those curries. With winter still lingering, try the hearty daal makhani ($10), a thick, stick-to-your-bones curry featuring urad daal (black lentils). Udupi slow-cooks its daal until those little lentils are busting at the seams, resulting in a consistency akin to creamy black-bean soup. The earthy flavor of the lentils dominates, with ginger and cilantro playing quiet back-up.
Aloo gobi masala curry ($10) pairs potato (aloo) with cauliflower (gobi) in a complexly spiced, crushed-tomato gravy. Soupier than the daal makhani, aloo gobi masala curry is great over the included basmati rice or wrapped up in a piece of the tortilla-like chapathi ($1.50), a staple south-Indian flatbread made from whole wheat flour. The bright-orange masala used in this dish includes hits of ginger, cumin, garlic, turmeric, chiles, and cilantro—basically, a who's who of Indian herbs and spices.
Onion paratha ($3.95) serves as a heftier complement to the thin, flaky chapathi. This unctuous, onion-laced flatbread is thick, crispy, and substantive. While the flexible chapathi is great for grabbing morsels of food, you can pile copious veg and gravy atop a stiff piece of paratha and eat it much like you would a tostada.
The last curry I'll mention is one of my favorites: Udupi Palace's soya aloo ($10). Its two main ingredients are potatoes and soya nuggets, a form of textured vegetable protein. I know, not the most appetizing term, but these guys are good. Off the shelf, soya nuggets are dry and brittle, but once they get simmering in gravy, their porous composition acts like a sponge, soaking up gravy. What was flavorless gravel magically becomes tender, juicy, and flavorful.
The humbling reality is that this feast just scratches the surface of what the Udupi Palace kitchen turns out. The menu is as broad as the dining room is busy. And I bet in a few more decades' time, when the South Asian enclave around Devon Avenue has swelled even bigger, Udupi will still be at it.
2543 West Devon Avenue, Chicago, IL 60659 (map)