Back in the ‘90s, I lived for a while on New York City’s Lower East Side. It was quite an experience for a Louisville boy, and one of the best things about it was my proximity to Indian Restaurant Row.
That’s what we called the block of Second Street between First and Second avenues, anyway, and the name fit: Every single storefront on the south side of the block housed an Indian restaurant, and they were all good. Their menus were all similar, prompting the rumor that they all shared the same kitchen. Doubtful, I know, but it seemed right.
Now, Louisville is not New York City, but it crossed my mind the other day that we’re kind of, sort of developing our own Indian Restaurant Row. It’s not as dense as New York’s, and there’s no question of a shared kitchen. But hey! Six Indian culinary establishments – four restaurants and two groceries – in a three-mile stretch of Hurstbourne Parkway isn’t bad in a city where we once had to drive to Cincinnati to get Indian food.
I was particularly happy to see Jay Hind (rhymes with “wind,” not “mind”) open a spacious grocery this month in the Hurstbourne strip where Walmart used to be. (1941 S. Hurstbourne Parkway, 742-2025, facebook.com/jayhindlouisville.) It was fun, and I scored a four-pound bag of whole-wheat atta flour for just $3.99, so I can make a batch of roti bread.
I was glad the friendly guy behind the counter pointed it out for me, because I was pretty much lost among all the intriguing, mysterious items on the shelves. I think I know a lot about Indian food, but I get lost in an Indian grocery, as I do with a lot of the menu at Shreeji Indian Vegetarian Street Food, which happily is right around the strip-mall corner from Jay Hind.
Perusing Shreeji’s menu without a search engine is not a trivial task. It is extensive, representing vegetarian cuisine from all over India. It offers more than 100 dishes in such broad categories as 30 South Indian choices and a full dozen Indian breads. Just about everything is priced at $9.99 or below, and that, my friends, is a deal.
We got too much as usual, phoned in our order and picked it up inside the restaurant with clear plastic separating me from the guy behind the counter.
As is typical of good Indian cuisine, the flavors of these dishes are so subtle and varied that it’s hard to describe them. “Aromatic” is awfully broad, and just plain “spicy” or “hot” doesn’t say it all. Pay attention and you’ll start picking out varied flavors – cardamom, turmeric, coriander, cilantro, peppers – but it’s the combinations of flavors is what makes them so good. Shreeji’s flavors always pop. They are never muddy or one-dimensional, but treat you to little bursts of spices and aromatics that keep on coming as you eat.
One of our favorites was palak pakoda ($6.99). Five baseball-size spheres of deep-fried turmeric-yellow chickpea flour were stuffed with whole spinach leaves and strips of onion in a hot crispy-crunchy coating that made them even more seductive than potato chips.
The online menu doesn’t inquire into your heat-level preference, although you could probably enter a number from one to five in the blank it provides for special instructions with each item. I neglected to do that, but they gave us a good assortment without being told, from the mild palak pakoda to the next item, daal vada ($4.99) which were also delicious in a five-chile-pepper burn-your-face kind of way. Five fiery, crunchy ping-pong-ball-size rounds of deep-fried lentil dough were kicked up with mixed spices and chopped herbs.
Tomato chili onion uttapam ($7.99) is a favorite because it reminds me of pizza, in an Indian way. It’s round and flat like a pizza, but it’s built on a thick base of rice flour and lentil flour with a subtle flavor and the approximate texture of a potato pancake. The toppings include tomato – there’s that pizza parallel again – but they’re diced fresh and combined with chopped onions, spicy chili peppers, snipped green herbs, and those complex Indian aromatic spices.
Chaat, pictured at the top of the page, is the iconic Indian street-food snack. It comes in dozens of forms, all of which would remind me of trail mix if trail mix grew up and turned out to be really cool. It’s a crunchy, tangy, sweet-and-spicy vegetarian blend of crunchy carbs, tangy and spicy sauce, fresh veggies – chickpeas, diced onions, potatoes, or tomatoes are typical – topped with more crunchies and a dusting of spice. We tried Delhi chaat ($6.49) and got a colorful sweet-and-savory bowl of crackery fried flat flour crisps buried under spicy chickpeas, spicy sauce, tangy yogurt, and a bunch of chopped cilantro.
Lassi, the Indian yogurt drink, makes a soothing antidote to fiery fare. Shreeji’s seven options are flavored with such aromatics as rose water or mango. We chose plain lassi ($2.99) and got a creamy, cooling drink with a distinct edge of sweetness that we weren’t expecting, but it did the job.
A filling Indian lunch for two came to $32.69 with tip.
Shreeji Indian Vegetarian Street Food
1987 S Hurstbourne Parkway