Do you want to eat the best Indian food you will ever have in your entire life? Eat at an Indian household.
To be honest, I don’t often eat at Indian restaurants because even the jankiest of my homemade lentil stews — made in a crock pot, using a random assortment of Indian spices my mom packed in mini Tupperware for me when I moved to New York — remind me more of what I know to be Indian food than most of the city's Indian establishments.
However, should you find a home-cooked Indian meal inaccessible to you (ordon’t feel like staining your fingers with turmeric while waiting 3 hours forlentils to cook), you may have the desire to seek out an Indian restaurant.
Choosing An Indian Restaurant
Choosing an Indian restaurant runs counterintuitive to any normal instincts you might have with regards to dining out. When considering a place, ask yourself the following questions:
Is the interior décor awful (plastic chairs, laminated menus, any usage of Comic Sans)? * Is the service terrible, bordering on offensive?
Is the wine list nonexistent or apparently made up?
Is the establishment packed with only Indian families and no one else?
Is this restaurant located in the basement of a temple or in the back of a grocery store?
If the answer to the first four questions is yes, then you may have found a pretty decent Indian restaurant. If the answer to all five questions is yes, then you've hit the jackpot.
Some Common Types of Indian Restaurants
North Indian food is what you will find at the vast majority of “mainstream” Indian restaurants. The dominant elements on these menus are typically super rich sauce/gravy dishes with some kind of meat or vegetable floating inside—these will almost certainly give you the runs. Here’s what you should lean into instead:
Dal: Another word for lentil stew. They come in a lot of varieties, but can basically be narrowed down to two colors: yellow and brown. You can’t go wrong with any kind, so order what feels right.
Sabzi: The Indian version of contorni. My favorite of these is aloo gobhi (potatoes and cauliflower). Indians do vegetables right.
Naan: Even at the shittiest of Indian restaurants serving the goopiest of gravies, the naan will always be good. Especially if it's garlic naan.
A note about meat: I think going vegetarian is always the move at Indian restaurants, just because those are typically the best dishes. But if you must get meat, choose something that comes out of the tandoor (it will have the word “tandoori” before it on the menu). The meat will be juicer, and more flavorful. My favorite place to eat north Indian food aside from the comfort of my ownhome is this super hippie yoga spot in the East Village called The Bhakti Center. The menu rotates through an assortment of vegan foods from various cuisines, but the staples are dal, rice, and sabzi. Even the malai kofta (a spicy Indian dumpling) is not bad!
Also known as beige foods in all of their tasty forms. When visiting South Indian places, abide by the Holy Trinity: Dosa, Vada, Idli.
Dosa: A super thin savory pancake stuffed with goodness (usually spicy potatoes), and served with assorted chutneys and sambar (a broth, like the soup portion of a French dip). For beginners, start off with a Masala Dosa, a plain pancake stuffed with potatoes. Then graduate to the Rava Masala Dosa, a more textured version with onions and chilies cooked into the pancake itself. Vada: Indian doughnuts. Hot and savory dumpling-esque morsels made with some kind of flour, then deep-fried and served with aforementioned assorted chutneys. Idli: the Indian version of a rice cake. Get a side of ghee and drizzle it on top of your idli, before dipping in assorted chutneys (and sambar).
Hands down, my favorite place to eat south Indian food in New York is the Temple Canteen at the Ganesh Temple in Flushing. The dosas here are awesome. The texture is just right (crisp on the outside, soft and chewy asyou get closer to the interior, not too oily), and the potato filling is doneexactly right. In addition to containing just the right amount of spice, your potatoes should have a little bit of lump, to allow for maximum grippage when you are scooping up potato bits with the dosa. Bonus points for the ladoos (basically just a ball of sweet fat) that are as big as your face.
Chaat is the equivalent of high tea or an afternoon snack, but with lots of fried food in every possible form. Get the bhel puri, a puffed rice salad loaded up with lots of other stuff that is sweet, salty, tangy, and spicy all at the same time. Other solid options include panipuri (or gol gappa), ahollow crisp filled with chickpeas, chutney, and tamarind water, or alootikki, a spiced potato patty that honestly pairs best with ketchup.
I haven’t found any good chaat places in New York, but I haven’t tried all that hard. My guess is that if you keep visiting Indian grocery stores and walking all the way to the back, you’ll eventually encounter one.
"Fusion" has become a dirty word in the world of restaurants. In this context, I concur. Run, don’t walk, AWAY from any restaurant that sells itself as "contemporary Indian," or has a real wine list, or a bar program of any kind. If you’re not pairing your Indian restaurant meal with either room temperature water or cheap beer, you simply aren’t doing it right.
Priya Krishna is the marketing manager of Lucky Peach and the author of the college-centric cookbook, Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks. Follow her @PKgourmet.