A rainbow of neon colors flooding through the plate glass window of Valley India Cafe radiates from a sign on the Bollywood DVD rental shop across the parking lot. The San Fernando Valley's mini Little India also boasts a spice market around the corner, sari stores advertising wedding attire and halal butcher shops close by.
At Valley India Cafe, cinnamon-scented steam floats from a mountain of biryani. It intertwines with the intoxicating scent of cardamom in a fresh coconut chutney. But it's the chicken kurma dosa that mystifies everyone at the table.
"Aren't dosas supposed to be a vegetarian thing?" one table mate asks.
True, in L.A.-area southern Indian restaurants, you've probably seen these impossibly thin crackly rice and lentil pancakes rolled into baseball bat-size cylinders and stuffed with curried potatoes or served with a palate-searing vegetarian curry. So is Valley India Cafe breaking a vegetarian mandate?
"Not at all," says owner Sekar Sundramoorthy, who for four years was the chef at Woodlands, a strictly southern vegetarian restaurant in Artesia and who now also co-owns a branch of it in Chatsworth.
"Many of our customers eat no meat on [certain days] but can do so the rest of the week. Most Indians enjoy meat on an occasional basis," he says. Which is why Sundramoorthy has expanded his repertoire to the meaty side of southern cooking while still including the vegetarian offerings for which the south is well known.
He's done a nice job of resurrecting a former '60s-style coffee shop, the previous home to a series of Indian places. A rose marble serving bar, sophisticated earth-toned walls, beautiful tile flooring and comfy upholstered booths boost the status of the former hole-in-the-wall.
His menu favors the spice-laden specialties of the Ahandra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu regions on the southeastern side of the subcontinent: Coconut milk (substituting for dairy milk), fresh pungent curry leaves and a healthy helping of chile distinguish many curries. Yet every dish that emerges from this kitchen displays a distinct flavor profile that shines through the heat. Chicken, lamb and seafood are the mainstays, and in accordance with custom throughout southern India, beef or pork aren't served.
Out comes our order of chicken Chettinadu, the signature dish of the prosperous Madras Chettinar clan of financiers and bankers. Each luscious bite reflects the hot, tropical, palm tree-crowded land of its origins. Dense with star anise, coriander and fennel seed, it hints of southeast Asian influences culled from countries with which the Chettinars dealt.
The crisp golden dosas here rival the best in Little India. Among the varieties, a dosa splashed with a fresh egg as it cooks and smaller, thicker set dosa. Served in pairs they're the size of a dinner plate with a soft porous texture that makes a great sponge for sopping up those voluptuous sauces — especially vegetable kurma, a creamy curry throbbing with fresh green chile overlaid with the richness of cashew and coconut.
Subdue the heat with the mild kothu parota, a street food concoction made from chopped flaky griddle bread scrambled with egg and shredded chicken. Call it Indian matzo brei. It's died-and-gone-to-heaven good when drizzled with the glowing yellow coconut-chile sauce that comes with it.
If you're a fan of kid, you'll want Hyderabad-style goat biryani. Studded with succulent chunks of lean braised meat, bursts of clove and cinnamon, the rice dish is served heaped like Mt. Vesuvius and topped with a single boiled egg.
As for nibbles, instead of the usual samosa pastries and baji fritters, go for "chicken 65," superheated fried chicken nuggets dipped in ground chile batter. Or have egg bonda sitting beside its mint-coconut chutney and a tamarind date sauce. These deep-fried shaggy-crusted orbs look like a delicious Modernist Cuisine experiment.
Valley India Cafe
Location: 7257 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Canoga Park, (818) 340-7500
Prices: Appetizers to share, $3.95 to $9.95; entrees, $7.95 to $12.95; lunch buffet, $8.99; dinner and weekend buffet, $10.99.
Details: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday and Wednesday to Sunday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday and Wednesday to Friday, 3 to 10 p.m. Saturday and 3 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesday. No alcohol. Credit cards accepted. Lot and street parking.