The plump Indian lady at the front counter of Bombay Sweets & Pure Vegetarian Restaurant on Hillcroft is shouting something across the restaurant. She sounds pissed at somebody. But we are too greedily immersed -- in the fire-roasted eggplant and green chile stew called bengan bhurta and the spicy garlic-and-ginger-studded chickpea curry called chana masala -- to pay much attention to her hollering in Hindi. Until suddenly I realize the lady is yelling at us.
I get up and bravely walk to the front counter, ready to be scolded for whatever it is I have done wrong. She hands me two bread baskets. It seems that the $4.50 all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet also includes a crispy papadum and hot nan bread, which we have neglected to pick up promptly. The lady was getting agitated because the bread comes straight out of the oven and she didn't want ours to get cold.
On the way back to the table, I admire the bubbly surface of the flatbread, which is slightly charred here and there from the hot oven. When I sit down and pull it apart, steam rises from the center. I use a piece to shovel up some luxuriously buttery saag paneer. There are also several daals on the buffet line today, one made with green lentils and tomatoes and another made with yellow lentils and lots of spices. I try them both over Punjabi rice, which is spiked with herbs, spices and green peas.
As I confessed last week (see "Food Fitness Center"), I am probably not the best judge of vegetarian food because I am a devoted carnivore. But by the same logic, when I enthusiastically recommend a vegetarian restaurant, meat-eaters should feel safe giving it a try. My definition of a great vegetarian restaurant is a place where the food is so good you don't even notice there isn't any meat. Bombay Sweets is just such a restaurant.
After I'd had several visits, each centering on the amazing buffet, my curiosity took over and I began checking out what everybody else was eating. Lots of Indian families eat at Bombay Sweets, and the kids seem especially fond of masala dosa. It's a rolled-up, fermented ground rice pancake filled with a spicy turmeric-colored potato filling. The two-foot-long pancake is way too big to pick up and put in your mouth; instead, you tear off pieces and wrap them around the potato filling, which tastes like curried hash browns. I am very fond of it, although since I always get the buffet as well, I can never seem to finish the masala dosa.
Dessert is always on your mind at Bombay Sweets because the place is foremost a candy store, and the dining room is right next to the display case. A sign in the candy case offers a pound of mixed goodies for $5.49. After one meal, I bought a pound by pointing to item after item and asking, "What's that?" Almost everything in the case turned out to be some form of milk fudge. There's rasgulla, a ball of sweetened milk flavored with cardamom and served chilled in a syrup. The unfortunately named barfi is actually quite good. It is milk fudge in a variety of flavors, including rosewater, saffron, pistachio and vanilla.
Along the top of the case are selections of pakora. These are vegetables fried in a crispy chickpea batter. There might be onion rings, zucchini or mushroom pakora on any given day. And you'll always see spinach pakora; the crunchy vegetable leaves are a favorite snack at tea time in Indian homes.
Next to the candies there are dozens of plastic tubs full of what looks like Chex party mix, minus the Chex. These are what's called chaat, an Indian word that means "crispy snacks." There are various combinations of puffed rice, nuts, seeds, fried lentils, fried squiggly noodles and other little crunchy things I can't identify. Chaat isn't eaten out of hand, the way we eat chips or nuts, it's usually made into a dish.
The most popular of those dishes is bhel puri, which consists of lots of rice crispies, some fried curly noodles, chopped onion, chopped potatoes, chili powder, mint chutney, tamarind chutney and a yogurt topping. It tastes sort of like somebody put onions, chutney and hot sauce in breakfast cereal. Bhel puri is a traditional thing to eat while strolling along the beach outside Bombay, where it's sold at chaat stalls on the Indian equivalent of the boardwalk. Chaat dishes are especially popular in the hot summer months.
Dahi puri is my favorite. Crisp-fried puri (sometimes spelled "poori") are little crunchy pastry pillows that have been hollowed out and filled with mint and tamarind chutney and yogurt and topped with crunchy fried lentils and fried noodles. It tastes like a cold, sweet-and-sour Indian nacho.
After my meal, I usually get a mango lassi, and not because I'm still hungry. As a Pakistani cab driver once explained, you drink this whipped yogurt drink after eating spicy food on a hot summer day because it calms your stomach and prevents heartburn. And after considerable experimentation, I've concluded that he's right. A tall glass of lassi is more effective than Pepto-Bismol, and it tastes better, too.
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He also recommended chewing paan, a betel nut leaf wrapped around a wad of betel nut, tobacco and spices. There is a little paan counter at Bombay Sweets, so you can indulge yourself if you want. I figure I have enough bad habits. And besides, the paan had stained the cab driver's teeth a rather unattractive shade of red.
For me, the paan counter, the sweets and the chaat are little more than sideshows. The buffet is the main attraction. Instead of the plain rice at the beginning of the buffet line, opt for the Punjabi rice at the end. Don't miss the awesome chana masala and the bengan bhurta; those two always seem to be available. There are lots of other dishes that rotate in and out of the lineup. Among my favorites is a velvety miniature stuffed eggplant fried in chickpea batter and served in a spicy tomato-ginger sauce. I'm also intrigued by the kadhi pakora, crusty graham flour dumplings that look like chunks of meat floating in a yogurt-based yellow curry. And the black-eyed pea masala is incredibly spicy. But you can hardly go wrong with any of the featured items.
In the dog days of a Houston summer, when a steak or a burger sounds too heavy, consider Bombay Sweets for an inexpensive lunch or dinner. It's one of several similar Indian vegetarian restaurants near the intersection of Hillcroft and the Southwest Freeway. While they are all pleasant, this one is by far my favorite.
I endure other vegetarian restaurants, but the food at Bombay Sweets is so explosively flavorful that it becomes a joy rather than a sacrifice to eat a meatless meal.