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.
Hours: Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Masala dosa: $6.99 Chettinad spicy dosa: $7.99 Manchurian dosa: $7.99 Pizza dosa: $8.49 Onion vada (2 pieces): $2.99 Manchurian idli: $4.99 Samosa: $4.99 Gobi Manchurian: $6.49 Desserts: $4.49 Mango lassi: $2.99
Go behind the scenes of this week's Cafe review in our slideshow "A Closer Look at The Dosa Factory."
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.
Equally spicy is the Manchurian dosa, which, in spite of its name, bears little resemblance to classic Chinese food. Traditionally, it's served with chicken in Manchurian sauce, but The Dosa Factory maintains its vegetarian concept by replacing chicken with batter-fried chunks of cauliflower. After eating dosas filled with Manchurian sauce, gobi Manchurian — like the filling of the dosa but somehow better — and steamed rice cakes doused in Manchurian sauce, I've decided it's my new favorite condiment. Move over, Sriracha and gochujang. This sinus-clearing combination of sambal chile paste, ginger, garlic, tomato sauce and soy sauce amps up the heat and complexity of already savory fried cauliflower and sour rice cakes.
The gobi Manchurian is one of those dishes that make people halt at your table and ask what you ordered so they can do the same. It's a common vegetarian dish in southern India, and even here, in the heart of steak and barbecue country, it's become a hit, thanks to that addictive, almost-too-spicy-but-not-quite sauce that coats every cauliflower floret in a sticky layer of bright red gravy.
More familiar to American audiences are the samosas, fried puff pastries filled with the popular medley of potatoes, peas, carrots, onions and cumin, listed on the menu along with gobi Manchurian as "taste bud ticklers." There's also a small section for vadas, fried lentil cakes shaped like doughnuts, and idlis, the steamed rice cakes that are, by themselves, unseasoned and bitter, and thus cry out for more Manchurian sauce, more sambar, more cooling coconut chutney.
In this sense, it's the sauces that make the dishes at The Dosa Factory. The dosas filled with anything labeled sauce or gravy — even the pizza one filled with tomato sauce — are the most memorable items, and the sambar offered gratis with every meal is thin enough and flavorful enough that you could easily mistake it for soup and be quite pleased to down an entire bowl all on its own. There are chilled silver bowls filled with a rotating menu of chutneys on a table next to the sambar, though I'm told the coconut is always available, which is a good thing, because it, too, is a complementary addition to nearly every dish.
Nobody's perfect, though, not even this place, which bests many more upscale and authentic Indian restaurants in town but falls a little short when it comes to traditional accompaniments like drinks and dessert. Tang-colored mango lassi tastes like store-bought mango yogurt and is lacking the refreshing acidic bite that comes from fresh mangoes, and a chai latte is sorely missing the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves that make the spicy-sweet drink so appealing to tea fanatics like myself.
Gulab jamun, fried balls similar to doughnut holes but without the glaze, are made with flour instead of the more typical powdered milk and are served swimming in a pool of syrup that tastes like sugar and not much else. A chocolate mousse cake feels out of place on a menu of Indian street food, and though it's not bad, it's more reminiscent of a frozen pie from a grocery-store freezer section than real chocolate mousse. I'd eat it in bed with a fork, straight out of the box, but it doesn't make me think of India and the bustling streets of Mumbai or New Delhi like a crispy, steaming dosa dipped in ruddy sambar does.
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Though the crowds aren't what they were when The Dosa Factory first opened, the momentum of the small fast-casual eatery isn't dying down. It was recently named by Urbanspoon one of the top new restaurants of 2013, along with big names like Coppa Osteria and The Pass & Provisions. The owner is hoping to start franchising soon, and the service is faster and the food seemingly more flavorful every time I go.
In the rather unscientific analysis of restaurants that led to Urbanspoon's list of the best in 2013, the website determined that fine dining is on the decline, with 70 percent of its roundup made up of spots in the $15-and-under-per-person price range. The Dosa Factory fits squarely in that category: A large dinner for one comes in at right under $15. For $7.49 you can get one of the myriad dosas, which is enough food for a satisfying meal.
If you get your order to go, you can take it away from the harsh white tables and green walls and serve it at home, with a tablecloth, china and a bottle of dry white wine. Because in truth, The Dosa Factory is ostensibly a fast-food restaurant, but based on the quality and complexity of the food, you'd never know it.