DEFCON Dining: Recalibrating Expectations at Shri Balaji Bhavan

Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty. 

We all have a few "why don't I come here more often?" restaurants. It's just one edge of the sword when you live in a city with as many good places to eat as Houston. For the purposes of DEFCON Dining, though, the answer to the question is usually "because I don't think my kids will be cool with it very often."  That said, the variables are ever changing. What may have been a go-to spot suddenly falls out of favor, and what seemed like a long shot suddenly becomes a viable option. The simple facts of time passing, kids getting older, moods changing can make a huge difference in what does and does not qualify as a workable plan. 

As it says up there in the intro, advance planning is a key part of DEFCON Dining. Whether or not it was intentional (it wasn't), I think working Himalaya into our regular rotation has gone a long way in opening up the rest of the Mahatma Gandhi District as possible dining options with which my kids will generally be okay. While each has learned to love at least one food item there (Cecilia adores the chicken tikka masala, and Juliette could eat her weight in nan), it's the mango lassi that's the key. The first thing they asked when I announced my intention to go to Shri Balaji Bhavan for dinner was, "Do they have mango lassi?" They'd been a bit wary when I told them we were going to a new (to them) Indian restaurant, but all concerns fell aside at the promise of mango lassi. 

When we stepped up to the counter, the menu threw a few hurdles at us. While my wife and I had been to Shri Balaji Bhavan before, the kids hadn't. The overlap between this menu and the one at Himalaya is understandably minimal, so they were faced with a slew of items whose names they'd likely never heard. Change can be tough for kids, especially when they don't have the tools to evaluate that change. That's where the picture menu comes in. I explained things to the kids a few times, going over the specifics of puri and dosa and pakora, but it wasn't until the lady behind the counter actually showed them what they'd be eating that things fell into place. 

Of course, while the kids may have oohed and aahed over the riotous colors and textures of dahi puri in picture form, the flavors proved a bit too vibrant on the plate. That's a thing to keep in mind at Shri Balaji Bhavan; most of the food is toward the higher end of the spice scale, especially where kids are concerned. Even the green onion pakora, billed by the staff as kid-friendly, outmatched them a bit. Thankfully, there are a few options that even the baby could eat. 

Mango lassis in hand, we waited for the rest of our (over) order as the dining room began to fill in with families. Across from us, a young Desi girl smiled over her own lassi, telling her mom how happy she was to have it. Apparently, she'd been waiting all week. My kids smiled at this small feeling of connection. We noted her order of pani puri, the puffy-crispy puri shells arriving unbroken and unfilled, a simple and satisfyingly crispy snack perfect for a spice-averse kid. I'm pretty sure we'll add that to our order next time. 

This time, the baby munched happily on idli and vada. The gentle fermented flavor of the mild steamed rice cakes was surprisingly evocative, even to the adults. Likewise, the fried lentil donuts were savory and rich, with a lovely contrast of textures between finely crisped exterior and the moist and airy crumb inside. We kept having to deflect the baby's reach, steering him toward the milder end of the table. His eyes and his hands were drawn to the kaleidoscopic appeal of our platter of dahi puri. I can't say I blame him. 

Dahi puri is easily one of my all-time favorite snacks. The vibrant puffs hit pretty much every olfactory and sensory trigger, a wild scramble through an obstacle course of temperature, texture and flavor. I couldn't get the kids to try them, but they did enjoy the lesson on proper dosa eating, practicing tearing bits of the lacy-edged half-moons with one hand and depositing the morsels in their mouths as decorously as possible (this proved to be "not very decorously").

They also stole more than their fair share of the flaky, chewy fried bread from our platter of chole bhature, leaving us to eat the spicy, dusky, beautifully creamy chickpeas by themselves. 

Despite the volume of food that hit our table, the kids ended up nibbling. A little bit of dosa, a few nibbles of idli and a tall glass of mango lassi. While it meant we had to feed them again after what we'd figured would be dinner, their approach seems fitting with Shri Balaji Bhavan's focus on chaat. Beyond that, the kids enjoyed themselves. They liked the food, they liked the lassi and they liked the idea of going somewhere new. Now, I just need to convince every restaurant I'm not sure I can take my kids to that they ought to serve mango lassi.
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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall