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There are more than 34,000 McDonald's locations in 119 countries worldwide. Dunkin' Donuts operates about 15,000 franchises, and Starbucks has spread to 62 countries, opening nearly 21,000 locations in just 40 years. This is what America has given to the rest of the world. This is our fast food, our cheap food, our classic street food.
But in Seoul, women have been frying squid outside of shopping centers for decades and selling rice cakes for centuries. In Paris, pedestrians stop at stalls for fresh crepes filled with ham and cheese, while night owls in Mexico City munch on street tacos into the wee hours of the morning. And in cities across southern India, as soon as the sun comes up, people head to work, dosas in hand.
It's the dosa, a traditional fermented crepe popular from Mumbai to Malaysia, that I recently found myself obsessing over every time I'd get a pang of hunger day or night. I'd stumbled across The Dosa Factory — a small, luridly lit, sterile shop sandwiched between a couple of clubs and an abandoned Darque Tan — while lost near Richmond and Fountain View, and was intrigued by the Kelly green and school-bus-yellow color scheme. "The Ultimate Indian Crêpe Experience," read the sign outside. Tired of driving in circles, I parked my car. I wanted this ultimate Indian crepe experience.
5959 Richmond Ave., 160
Houston, TX 77057
Ten minutes later, I was seated at a blindingly clean white table with a dosa the size of a car windshield loosely rolled and waiting on a plate in front of me. Dosas are meant to be eaten with your hands, so I tore into it, discovering first the slightly sour flavor that comes from the fermented batter. There's no wheat in these dosas, just rice and black lentils and a little salt, blended together and allowed to ferment before being spread on a flat griddle and cooked for less than a minute on each side. They're thin and crispy around the lacy edges and soft and pliable in the center, where anything from traditional masala to pizza sauce and cheese is stuffed.
Eventually, I reached the mushy yellow potato filling in the center, dotted with bright green peas, onions and flecks of orange carrot. Tearing off a piece of dosa, I dragged it though the mix and dipped it into the coconut chutney and sambar provided free at the front of the restaurant. I let the flavors mingle on my tongue — first rich tamarind and spicy chile powder, then cool coconut and mint, and, finally, earthy turmeric and cumin.
Screw hamburgers, I thought to myself, reveling in the symphony of spices. This is good street food.
Go behind the scenes of this week's Cafe review in our slideshow "A Closer Look at The Dosa Factory."
The Dosa Factory has one location so far, but the owner's goal is to begin franchising and opening Indian vegetarian fast-food restaurants across the country. Niraj Shah devised the concept while selling dosas from a food booth outside the George R. Brown Convention Center during events. Shah is already co-owner of a franchise of Sankalp: The Taste of India, located in Sugar Land, so the transition to creating his own restaurant seemed natural. What doesn't seem as natural is the look of the place.
When the street-food concept is elevated to fast food or fast casual, you expect that it will maintain a little of the gritty street charm of a food cart, but The Dosa Factory went in the opposite direction. It's inviting in the way that a pristine fast-food chain in a third-world country is inviting: polished laminate floors, white tables and chairs, sleek silver stripes running the length of the impossibly green walls. It looks like a foreign fast-food chain, but the decor belies the talent hidden behind those garish walls and the two viewing windows that look into the kitchen.
Friends have told me that when The Dosa Factory first opened in late September 2013, the lines were so long that it wasn't worth the wait to sit and eat there. Now that the novelty has worn off, I've found myself with my choice of empty tables on each visit. There were still plenty of people in the space (all of whom appeared to be Indian, actually), but The Dosa Factory has established a rhythm to get people in and out. It helps that the employees behind the counter know the menu by heart and are eager to recommend a dosa from the list of nearly 30 varieties.
Were it not for an employee's suggestion, I wouldn't have discovered the chile paneer dosa, filled with small chunks of creamy Indian cheese and soy sauce-marinated bell peppers, cabbage and onions. It's one of the more Indo-Chinese-inspired dosas on the menu, which also take inspiration from northern India (paneer tikka masala), Italy (pizza) and Mexico (cheesy fajita).
The masala dosa is most true to the cuisine of south India, where dosas originated, but it's lacking the signature spice found in most foods from that region. For a dose of heat, try the Chettinad spicy dosa, named after a region in the state of Tamil Nadu in southeast India. Like many dishes at The Dosa Factory, it makes use of cauliflower, here grated and mixed with green beans, peas and carrots in a thick onion and garlic gravy that contains a big dose of chile powder.
Based on this review I rushed over to the Dosa Factory. I have to say, I as underwhelmed by the food. It is the brightest Indian food place I have ever eaten in but it is very bland compared to Udipi and a few other places up and down Hillcroft. I tried the gobi Manchurian, the corn dosa, mixed spicy dosa, and a few other things and none of it had much flavor or texture. Briyani Pot's gobi is far better as is the Manchurian corn. Udipi's chutneys have far more flavor and the filling of the dosas also have more flavor and texture. Dosa Factory also does not have the wide array of chaats that are available at Udipi and a few other places that exude flavor. I see no reason to return to the Dosa Factory unless I want a brightly lite space to read.
How strange that we first noticed the sign yesterday, coming back from my b'day lunch at Confucius wondering what this place was all about! Now we're going for sure, thanks!
For my buck, masala dosa at Bombay Sweets cannot be beat.. I'm interested to see their interpretation here, hope it comes with the spicy lentil soup.
Can we be buddies and you take me tomorrow?
@gossamersixteen The masala dosa is not the best, but they all come with free sambal, the lentil soup you're talking about. And it's some damn good sambal.