Tunnel Explorer: DGN Factory in Downtown Houston
The counter at DGN Factory in the downtown tunnels of Houston.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
DGN Factory is at 1001 Fannin in the tunnels, and I've kept an eye on it for a long time. It seemed to take forever for the space to transition from "Coming Soon" to "Now Serving." While it's been a few months since I've made the trek underground to scope out the changing terrain, it been longer than that since I first noticed the bright green and yellow banner announcing that "The Ultimate Indian Crepe Experience" would soon be available beneath the Earth's crust. I mentioned it to a coworker, excited at the possibilities of real-deal dosas just a few minutes' walk from my desk. "That sign's been up forever," he told me, bursting my bubble with the fear that the dosa stand might fizzle before its first crepe. Fortunately for all of us, DGN (Dosas Gone Nuts, if you must know) didn't fizzle.
My excitement built as I watched the busy kitchen staff cooking up flying saucer-size dosas on the flat-top. It buffered a bit when I saw my masala dosa folded into thirds and then hacked unceremoniously into chunks with the edge of a scraper. Then again, the crunch of the well-bronzed dosa being chopped up was audible even through the swinging doors — a promising sound.
I'd added on a couple of side items, an idli and a medu vada, but regretted that decision when it was apparent that meant the dosa would spend extra time in its box. If there's one thing that is the sure enemy of crepes, it is packaging. I was sure the dosa — trapped inside its styrofoam prison — would wilt. It did, but only a bit.
Still crackly-edged, despite its foam-enclosed wait.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
A lovely, malty smell wafted from the box when I opened it. It was rich, earthy and slightly funky, thanks to the fermented batter. Calmed by the lovely aroma, I checked the integrity of the crepe. The edges of even the bottom pieces of the hacked up dosa were nicely textured and that audible crunch still readily apparent when I snapped off a bit. The center of the bottom pieces was a bit pasty on account of the hot filling of spiced potatoes, tender carrots and peas pressed inside. The spicing was mild — a bit of cumin, some ginger, mustard seed and cilantro.
If you want more spice, give it a dunk in the thin, brothy mix of onions and spices (possibly takkali kolumbu, a thin but flavorful sauce of onion, tomato and spices that often accompanies dosa). It's dusky, with a nice bloom of earthy, fruity heat. Lean the other way with the thin, cooling and nutty coconut chutney. Dosas come with one of each and with the "Special Combo" of one idli and one vada.
The idli, a steamed rice cake, smells of buttermilk and rice. It is overall mild, like a cross between rice cakes and unseasoned cornbread batter, with that vague, fermented high note. It has a nice pillowy texture, neither overly dense nor airy. Dunk it in the takkali and the sauce soaks right in.
The vada is a fried lentil donut. A bronzed, chubby hoop of lentil dough, it is shatteringly crisp outside, aerated and extremely tender inside. I did wish the exterior was just a bit less greasy. The bit of veg tossed inside (carrot, cilantro, green chile and cumin flavor this version) isn't really noticeable. It mostly tastes of the fryer and fermentation. It's really nice with the coconut chutney, which brings out the cumin notes and even a bit of cilantro.
Steamed idli and fried vada are nice add-ons to your dosa.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
While I may not have stated it explicitly, you may have noticed that my lunch was entirely vegetarian. That's because the entire menu at DGN is vegetarian, revolving around various iterations of rice and lentils, fermented, steamed and fried into various forms. That's a nice addition to the tunnels in and of itself, since the other options are decidedly meat-heavy.
The staff is friendly and chatty, too, ready to explain their concept to anyone unfamiliar with the wonder that is the dosa. If you're not into the traditional versions, there are riffs on pizza and a dosa-taco hybrid, too, stuffed with black beans, salsa and cheese. I don't think I'll go that route, though I may give the Manchurian dosa a try. It's filled with cauliflower dressed in a tangy, tomato-based sauce.
I've had better dosas in town. In my own limited experience, few can compare to the table-obscuring version at Shri Balaji Bhavan. We molemen rarely see a place like DGN — something completely new to the tunnels. We have Indian food options, we've even had crepes (though not good ones), but we've never had dosas. That's worth a few minutes of canned air and a brief walk. Maybe next time, I'll eat mine at one of the tables a few yards away, and kindly ask them not to chop it up or stuff it in a box. I'm not sure they'll oblige. Either way, on most days I'll take a reasonably good dosa over most of what's down in the tunnels.
DGN just might be my current favorite tunnel option. Then again, it's been awhile since I've spent much time down here. Who knows what new wonders await?
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