Saturday, December 31, 2011

Udupi Palace, Artesia, Restaurant Review

South Indian vegetarian restaurant Udupi Palace is worth visiting to ogle at the ginormous food (and to enjoy some of its better menu items, including the Masala Dosa), but its atmosphere and service leave something to be desired.

6 out of 10 Peppers = Medium

The management at Udupi Palace should consider placing a basketball-player size sign outside saying, "You must be [this tall] to eat here." This vegetarian Indian located in Artesia is home of the giant food. It's pretty impressive when your meal is literally bigger than your (already huge) plate.

In my notes, I had Udupi Palace as a 5 Pepper restaurant, but reflection has made be a bit fonder of this place so I upped it to 6. The food here is, overall, worthy of a higher rating. But I had some issues with the atmosphere and was bummed with my specific order. I have eaten here once before, and I remember being astounded by the size of my Uthapam, which is like a savory pancake. I didn't like the flavor much, but the impression of the huge pancake sitting on my plate has stuck with me.

This time around I went with Nick, Nick's brother, and Nick's mom (during one of her visits to California).

THE SETTING


The restaurant was sweltering on this October day. I could have closed my eyes and literally believed I was in South India. Air conditioning would have been a welcome improvement. I don't remember it being this hot in here the previous time I went (but I also don't remember what month that was), so I hope this was a temporary issue. But we were all uncomfortable.

The artwork is fun bold images of Indian spices, lentils, and other food-themed items. There's a sign for parking in the back. I can't confirm that as I like to park far away on random side streets and walk when I'm in Little India, but you shouldn't have a problem finding free parking in this neighborhood. The service was bleh. Our server ran off without pausing to answer our questions.

The menu cracked me up because next to the drink options, the menu exclaimed "no refills." And by exclaimed, I mean four exclamation points.

THE FOOD

The food is South Indian vegetarian cuisine. I'm still learning about South Indian food, but, like most folks, I love a good dosa.

Nick ordered one of the restaurant's non-dosa specialties, Poori Bhaji. Nick loves poori, so you know he was thrilled when a big fluffy poori (with a side of potato curry) arrived. He was definitely happy with his order, though I think he was jealous when he saw an even bigger poori at the next table.

My mother-in-law ordered the Masala Dosa, which is a solid option here. The server told us it would be "plate size" but didn't mention how huge the plate was. No complaints there though. A Masala Dosa is a common South Indian vegetarian dish that consists of a thin rice flour and lentil flour "crepe" filled with potatoes and served with Sambar, which is a spiced soup that's great for dipping the dosa into or sipping separately. My mother-in-law said she was happy with this dosa.

One of the day's specials (listed on a board at the front) was a Spinach Dosa. I love spinach so I was all over this. Until I bit into it and realized it was full of potatoes! (Gasp!) I am not a potato fan, and, while there was spinach in it too, it was at least half spuds. Bummer. It was also bland.

And I saved the biggest dish for last: meet the Paper Dosa. Another solid option here. It's crispy and Bobby (Nick's brother) was happy that it wasn't spicy. The restaurant did give him some extra potatoes for it, which was nice to eat with the part of the dosa that couldn't be filled cause it would have fallen off of the plate.

My mother-in-law also got a Mango Lassi. The restaurant also offers a Sweet Lassi and a Salty Lassi.

At the end of our meal, our server offered us complimentary lollipops.

I'd love to try out some of the other vegetarian Indian restaurants in Artesia to see how they compare. That said, if this turns out to be the best one, I'd be OK with that. I'd just get a different type of dosa and probably get it to-go, if it's a South Indian-hot type of day.

Udupi Palace, 18635 Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, CA 90701. (562) 860-1950.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Indian-Spiced Lentil Turkey Chili Recipe

Substituting spices commonly used in Indian food (like cinnamon and ginger) for typical chili spices and substituting lentils for kidney beans is the base for this sweet and spicy Indian-inspired chili.

Ingredients:
1 lb. ground turkey
1 cup brown lentils
4 cups chicken broth (or turkey broth, if you can find it)
1 yellow onion, diced
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 can diced or crushed tomatoes
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. curry powder, divided
1/2 tsp. ground ginger, divided
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, divided
salt to taste
pepper to taste
(optional) jalapeno (seeded or unseeded, to taste), diced
(optional) raita (for garnish)
(optional) cilantro (for garnish)

You'll Also Need:

a cooktop Dutch Oven or other large pot

Step-by-Step:

1. Pour 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil in the Dutch Oven over medium low heat. Add diced onion and cook until the onion starts to turn translucent.
2. Add the 1 lb. ground turkey and break it up in the Dutch Oven. Add 1/2 tsp. curry powder, 1/4 tsp. ground ginger, 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste. Brown the turkey. Then remove the onion and turkey from Dutch Oven and keep warm.
3. Cook the cup of brown lentils in the residual turkey fat. Add the remaining 1/2 tsp. curry powder, 1/4 tsp. ground ginger, 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste. If using a jalepeno, add it here.
4. Add the 4 cups of broth and the can of tomatoes (including the sauce). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes.
5. Add the cooked turkey and onions back into the Dutch Oven. Add the 1 Tbsp. tomato paste. Stir through.
6. Cook with the lid off for about 10 minutes or until the chili reaches the desired consistency and the lentils are tender.
7. (Optional) Garnish with cilantro. Serve with naan (Trader Joe's has great pre-made naan options).

Serves 4.

The AHH Factor:
When I was in college, homemade chili was one of my go-to meals. It was so simple (pour everything into one pot), yet gave me the satisfaction of making my own dinner. The smell of the spices was terrific. Back then, I only made chili the typical way -- with spices like chili powder and cumin and with red kidney beans.

I preferred making chili to buying it because back then I could only find beef-made chilis for sale. But in recent years, that's changed. I find turkey chili everywhere, and I especially love the turkey chili in a can at Trader Joe's. It's perfectly seasoned and makes a great lunch, especially topped with some shredded cheddar.

While it seems silly to me to spend my time making a pot of turkey chili when I can easily buy it, I'm still a bit wistful for the days of homemade chili. So I started thinking of ways that I could make it unique -- something I couldn't easily buy in a can or at the deli. That's when I came up with the idea of making it a little bit Indian -- replacing the chili power and cumin for the spices I typically put in my Indian entrees, like cinnamon and ginger. Then I thought about replacing the kidney beans with lentils. (A quick Google search showed me that lentil chili recipes are rampant, which I took as a good sign that adding lentils to chili wouldn't be too weird.) And I wanted to top it off with bit of raita, as a replacement for the traditional sour cream.

The result tastes amazing, a chili that's a little bit sweet and a little more spicy, plus healthier than your traditional beef-and-beans variety. Plus, it'll make your home smell amazing.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Taj Mahal of India, Los Angeles, Restaurant Review

Taj Mahal of India is a decent option if you live close by, with its meat curries being some of the best menu options.

6 out of 10 Peppers = Medium

Whenever we have friends visiting from out of town, we show them the sights: the Santa Monica Pier, the Hollywood tour, an Indian restaurant -- you know, the usual ;) OK, so an Indian restaurant probably isn't on most residents must-do lists, but I like to get different perspectives on LA's Indian restaurant scene so I take friends with me whenever possible.

My cousin Annie had come all the way out from Washington D.C. for our housewarming party, and, having a decidedly spicier palette than I do, she's great for a different perspective. We also brought Nick's brother, Bobby, with us to Taj Mahal of India, which, if I remember correctly, we found through a Google search.

THE SETTING

It was a Sunday night and I was a bit worried when we walked in and I noticed that we were the only customers in the place at first. More people came in later. I get the feeling this place gets more take-out customers than dine-in customers. (The restaurant offers free delivery within 2 miles.) If you are going to dine-in here, Sunday night is probably the best time parking-wise. The meters aren't enforced, so our parking was free.

Inside, the color scheme is traditional reds, with wall hangings and beads as art.

Our server was intrusive. He kept interrupting, and he asked twice in one minute if we were ready to order. Also, he had trouble understanding our orders.

THE FOOD


The menu was a bit suspect because it included hummus and beef samosas. And misleading because it lists Fanta, but when Nick ordered it, a Sunkist came out. Not even close, guys. Also, the restaurant doesn't automatically bring out free papadum, but when we asked, the server brought us papadum and said it was complimentary. The papadum had good flavor and was satisfyingly crispy.

We ate all of our dishes family style. Portions seemed smaller than at similar restaurants.

The Lamb Korma was the best dish, with small pieces of lamb in a flavorful sauce. We ordered all of our dishes at a medium spice level, and that was a good call for this dish.

The Saag Paneer was just OK. Even though we ordered it medium, it tasted mild. The paneer pieces were small.

The tasty Shrimp Malai Curry was done well. Nick and I both thought it had a spicy kick, but Annie said it tasted mild. She is her father's daughter in that way for sure. I still remember the time my uncle (her father) made a dish for a potluck at the temple. It was literally so spicy that virtually no one -- including all of the Indian-born parents who were raised on spicy food -- could eat it. I'm in awe of this branch of our family's propensity for spice.

We weren't asked what spice level we wanted our Lamb Biryani, but the consensus was that this dish was the spiciest. Oddly, I actually didn't think it was spicy (my vote for spiciest was the shrimp), but my theory is that's because I expect biryani to be spicy. (Though sometimes it can go overboard.)

The Raita wasn't spicy at all, of course, but it was odd in that it was thicker and creamier than is typical.

All in all, I wouldn't dine in here again, but if I lived close by, I'd likely get take-out on occasion. All four of us thought the dishes were average or slightly above average, and the restaurant keeps its prices on the low end.

Taj Mahal of India, 8566 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles (neighborhood: West Los Angeles) (310) 652-8598.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Unique Indian and Nepalese Gifts in Pasadena

Via a Groupon I purchased a few weeks back, I found out about a unique boutique in Pasadena that's such a cool place to buy gifts for Indian or Nepalese friends and family -- and for anyone, really, who cares about fair trade.

It's called Ten Thousand Villages and it's located S. Lake Ave. It's a small store that I guess I overlooked the entire time Nick lived in Pasadena, but it's a hidden gem. And if you're reading this from somewhere other than Southern California, you'll be happy to know there are over 70 other locations of Ten Thousand Villages across the U.S. -- including in Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. You can get a complete list of store locations here.

As the retailer's website says, "Ten Thousand Villages in Pasadena, CA, is a fair trade retailer of artisan-crafted home decor, personal accessories and gift items from across the globe. Featuring products from more than 130 artisan groups in some 38 countries, we are part of a network of over 390 retail outlets throughout the United States selling Ten Thousand Villages products."

When I walked into the Pasadena store, I was a little disoriented at first trying to find items made in Nepal. Then a sales associate (who may well have been a volunteer, as many of the workers here are) clued me in by telling me the store was organized by color. A little bit odd, I think, especially as it turned my hunt for Nepalese items into kind of a treasure hunt throughout the entire store. The associate was helpful though, in that he was able to use the store's computer database to find Nepalese items and walked me to several that he thought I might be interested in.

I was in the store to buy a gift for my mother-in-law (who's originally from Kathmandu), and it took me a while of walking around on my own to find something I thought she'd really like. Then I found these so-cute handmade notecards in this lovely box -- all made in Nepal. I love this and wound up buying it; it cost about $26 (minus my Groupon). Another customer who saw me with it at the register loved it so much that she actually picked up a notecard box too.

Plus, once the associates realized I was buying the item as a gift they even gave me a preprinted card that explained how the gift is fair trade -- so the receiver understands its significance.

This will be a fun go-to spot for me when I'm shopping for family and friends in the future. And they have foodie gifts too, like some premade mixes and snacks from other countries.

Ten Thousand Villages, 567 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena 91101 (626) 229-9892.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Eat My Blog Raised Over $4,000 for the Food Bank

Thanks so much to everyone who bought items at the Eat My Blog bake sale on Saturday. I realized that "pseudo-sandesh" is a pseudo-scary name for a dessert, so we called my donation Almond Ricotta Bars for the sale.

Of course, Nick and I also did are part of buying items from the sale.

We bought a mix of restaurant-donated and blogger-donated items. Clockwise from top left: a cakewich from Cake Monkey Bakery, Mushroom Empanada from Border Grill, Yoda Matcha (Green Tea) Cookies from Just Jenn, Ube Cheesecake from Pinoy Panda, and something sweet from Delightful Recipes (embarrassing that I can't remember exactly what it was; the holiday stress is definitely getting to me).

And I was so happy to find out that this bake sale raised $4,273.86 for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Yes!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Eat My Blog this Saturday (for a good cause)

I just put my Pseudo-Sandesh Ricotta Cheese-Almond Squares in the oven as prep for Saturday's Eat My Blog event, a bake sale where the proceeds go to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. (Why is procrastinating always so much fun? I probably should have put these in a few hours ago...but at least I didn't wait until tomorrow night. Ha!)

On Saturday, please join about 50 LA-based food bloggers, including myself, at the Eat My Blog sale. All of us, as well as quite a few restaurants, are donating baked goods to the sale. Items will be priced between ~$1 and $4. I am so excited to buy up everyone else's creations, and I love the fact that it benefits a food bank. When I was a teenager who was interested in community service, the Golden Harvest Food Bank in Augusta, Ga., welcomed me as a volunteer, and I would go at least once a month to help sort cans, clean the store, and organize items in the office. As an adult, I'm thankful to be able to help the LA food bank earn some money, especially right before Christmas. I hope you'll be willing to help too.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Pseudo-Sandesh Recipe (AKA Baked Ricotta Cheese-Almond Squares)


Who knew making sandesh would be so easy? Oh, wait...[at least it tastes good]!

Ingredients:
15 oz. whole milk ricotta cheese
1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar
1 cup blanched slivered almonds
(optional -- I didn't use it) yellow food coloring

You'll Also Need:
a mixing bowl, a baking dish (ideally, a 9x13, but I only had an 8x8 handy so that's what I used), an oven

Step-by-Step:
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2. In mixing bowl, mix the ricotta cheese, sugar, almonds (reserve a few for garnish), and food coloring (if you're using it).
 3. Use a spatula to spread the mixture into a baking dish (ideally, a a 9x13). Bake for about 45 minutes, starting to check for doneness at 30. (It's done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.) Garnish with the rest of the almonds. Let cool and cut into squares.
Makes about 20 small squares.

The AHH Factor: I thought it was a simple request.

I e-mailed my mom for her sandesh recipe so I could make it for Diwali. (I have to e-mail her for recipes because if I ask her for one over the phone, I get a lot of "you know what I mean" when it comes to ingredient names. Except that I have no idea what she means.) For anyone who's not familiar with it, sandesh is a traditional Bengali sweet. It's creamy and snow white, sometimes with hints of yellow, if it's fancy and has saffron. A color it is decidedly not is the color shown in my photos.

So how did this pseudo-sandesh come to be?

"Sandesh is little bit hard the way I make it, especially for first-timers," responded my mom.

All of a sudden, I was thrust back to my teen years. In my mom's kitchen, I make a genuine offer to help her make dinner. Even then, I had a budding interest in the creative process of cooking and I loved to see all of the disparate ingredients come together into a completely different whole. And my mom was a great cook. There was a bit of mystery in her cooking to me, as it seemed to somehow materialize on the table as soon as I got home from school, without much effort at all.

Generally, after rebuffing my first several offers, she'd relent. Sort of. "OK, you can stir this," she'd say, nodding to a pot on the stove. At least it was something to do. Cooperatively, I'd stir it. Then hang around waiting for the opportunity to stir it again. But, whether she realized I saw her or not, as soon as I glanced in another direction, she'd rush over to the pot and stir it herself.

Because I guess stirring the contents of a pot is "a little bit hard," and best left to the experts.

To this day, I don't understand why she didn't want me to learn how to cook. I think part of it is she was primarily a stay-at-home mom, and cooking may have felt like her big contribution to the family. She may not have wanted anyone, even her own daughter, to take that away from her. Maybe a more positive spin on it is that, having spent her formative years in India, my mom saw that there it was primarily the housekeeping staff who tended to the cooking and cleaning and she felt it shouldn't be a homeowners' responsibility to cook. I'm pretty sure she's never enjoyed cooking, but she felt it was her obligation. Maybe she didn't want to pass that "burden" onto me.

Maybe someday she will tell me the real reason.

I learned to cook mostly from cooking with friends in college, then from watching the Food Network constantly (it's still the main thing I use my DVR for), and from collecting cookbooks. There was a lot of trial and error in college, but, for the most part, I think I'm up to speed at this point. When my mom finally saw that my interest in food wasn't going away, she did start responding when I asked for recipes, and she started genuinely giving me tips on how to make items turn out correctly.

That's why I was sad to see that she thinks I can't make sandesh. I'll be back on my blog later after I can get the true sandesh recipe, with the likely source being a different relative. I know it involves making fresh paneer and it doesn't involve an oven. (Most homes in India don't even have ovens.)

In the meantime, I'm sharing the recipe my mom placated me with. To be fair, it does taste great. It's sticky and sweet, and everyone who's tried it has raved about it. I get requests for it often. And the flavors do taste Indian (maybe despite what you'd expect from the list of ingredients), so I'd recommend finishing any Indian meal with this sweet dessert. And, of course, it's super easy.

But then again, any recipe can become super easy if you just give it a chance.
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