If you think the name is long, try the line. The queue at the counter of Shri Balaji Bhavan Pure Vegetarian Restaurant oftenincludes children in sequined outfits from the fabric store next door, utility repairmen in jumpsuits, businessmen in starched collars, college students in T-shirts and grandmas wrapped in multicolor saris. It is probably the longest line in Little India. And that makes Balaji Bhavan Hillcroft's hottest eatery in more ways than one.
Try the rasam (carefully!) to understand Balaji Bhavan in a nutshell. The thin, tomato-based soup comes in a stainless-steel cup along with six other items on a circular platter for the amazingly cheap price of $4.99. A South Indian favorite, it puckers the mouth with the sourness of tamarind and, like most dishes at Balaji Bhavan, bathes the temples in spice-induced sweat.
Clearly, this is not a restaurant for everyone. But vegetarian South Indians raised since birth on a diet of piquant sambar masala seasoning will find it wickedly legit.
The tile floors sparkle, the Bombay pop thumps, and deities from the restaurant's eponymous South Indian temple evoke the motherland. Renovated and expanded in 2003, Balaji Bhavan attracts large groups of women, who shop nearby and tend as a rule to uphold South India's tradition of vegetarianism. Lapsed husbands can be found across the street gnawing on kebabs.
One of the most popular items at Balaji Bhavan is the Madras thali. Families across India dine on thalis (literally "plates") for lunch. In addition to the rasam, this typically South Indian thali includes a unique, slightly bitter cup of mung beans and green banana stems; a cup of zucchini in coconut sauce that tastes like a red Thai curry; an adroitly spiced, dandelion-hued channa dal (one of the few mild items on the menu); homemade yogurt; and a cup of sticky rice seasoned with cardamom and clarified butter for dessert. It's a dish as varied as the crowd eating it.
The same crowd can often make Balaji Bhavan harder to manage than a train station in New Delhi. Sometimes too busy to dole out a take-out box or an order number, the cashier wears a straw baseball cap that one could imagine on a harried postcolonial ticket taker. Even the simplest dishes arrive slowly. Still, the confusion and the wait are worth it. Balaji Bhavan offers some of the freshest, cheapest and best-spiced Indian food in the city.
Don't be put off by first impressions. The dosas (Indian crepes), of which there are a dozen varieties, all cost less than $5. They lack the architectural bravery of the puffy, tubular affairs at Madras Pavilion. Our rava masala dosa arrived flat, with the stuffing of potato and onion on the side in Styrofoam. My fiancée, Rinku, cringed. "What the hell? He just gave it to you in a little bowl? You need more than that."
Then she took a bite.
"Mmmm," she said. "The potatoes are really good." They were redolent with fenugreek. And we agreed that the sambar, an accompanying dipping sauce, was excellent, a nice balance of salt, creamed lentils, sour tamarind and fire.
The cooks at Balaji Bhavan don't mess around. Jolly, portly women holding forth over steaming pots, they eschew the creamy North Indian dishes -- Punjabi saag paneer, rich kormas -- in favor of good South Indian fare and humble street-food-style chaats (or snacks) done well. The breads here are also a delight. The paper-thin rotis and lightly fried puris that accompany many dishes are made to order and always warm, soft and delicate.
People who eat Indian food regularly will appreciate confident variations on old favorites. The chole (chick peas in sauce) is lighter in hue than most, possessing less tomato and more garam masala, a mix of any number of ten to 15 different seasonings. In a different dish, the chole drenches samosas to make samosa chaat. Though worth ordering, the dish doesn't have as much yogurt and tamarind-and-cilantro chutney as the samosa chaat at nearby Bombay Sweets.
On another visit, an evening spent with three Indian diners, everyone raved about the dal fry. Unlike basic dal of lentils and spices, a dal fry is also mixed with ajwain, an aromatic spice cooked in oil. The dal tastes sweetly perfumed and, like almost everything here, much less oily than Houston's typical Indian fare. It's a good idea to squirt the bowl with the wedge of accompanying lemon.
Balaji Bhavan truly stumbles only when it wildly diverges from tradition. The pizzalike cheese uttapum was flavored with jalapeños and topped with cheddar and Jack. Think of it as Indo-Mex. The lackluster mango shake just substituted milk for the yogurt that usually goes into a mango lassi. And the steaming carrot halwa dessert tasted like plastic. It had been microwaved inside a Styrofoam bowl, which partially melted.
On most visits, the tableware is less likely to melt down than your taste buds. Toward the end of our second meal at Balaji Bhavan, my fiancée faltered. "My stomach hurts," she mumbled. "It's burning."
Meanwhile, the dining room overflowed with small children. They danced on the tables, played hopscotch on the tiles, ate -- all without breaking a sweat. They were tougher than we were. Although the restaurant serves a few other nonspicy items such as lemon rice, a tomato omelette and daal pakwaan, you'll probably end up battling flames.
Mercifully, Balaji Bhavan offers an abundant supply of large water pitchers. I downed nearly an entire pitcher on my own. The unusual stainless-steel cups are standard overseas; Indians think liquid tastes colder when it's quaffed from metal, especially pure silver.
If the water doesn't extinguish the blaze, you might consider a dessert of shrikhand. Sweetened, condensed yogurt that is liberally flavored with saffron and ground pistachio, this North Indian favorite works like a fire blanket for the tongue and stomach. The yogurt's creamy heaviness is mitigated by its natural tartness and the floral notes of the saffron. At $5.99 a pound (two people should eat only a quarter of that), it's money well spent. And underscoring the incredible value of the place, it's the most expensive thing on the menu.
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5655 Hillcroft St.
Houston, TX 77036