Food Fight: Battle Samosas

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A couple of weeks back, the weekly Food Fight took one of the world's many pocket-size food pockets into the ring for Battle Empanadas, with hairy results. This week, I decided to take another portable food item into the heat of battle.

Contrary to popular belief, samosas aren't just limited to Indian cuisine. The stuffed shell originated much farther north, in an area now geographically covered by various countries like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. From there, the food -- which is filled with delicious vegetables and is imminently portable -- spread like pollen on the wind, eventually becoming most popular in India. That said, samosas (or their very close cousins) can be found as far west as Portugal, where they're called chamuças and even deep into Africa, where they're called sambussas in Ethiopia and Somalia. (Which leaves us wondering when Blue Nile is going to add these to its menu...)

Samosas are especially popular in southern India, where Udipi cuisine is prominent. Udipi cuisine is most characterized by its strict vegetarian principles, into which the veggie-filled samosa fits smartly alongside masala dosai (remember those?) and other regional specialties. I headed to two primarily southern Indian restaurants for this week's battle.

Shiv Sagar, 6662 Southwest Freeway

When I entered Shiv Sagar at 11:30 on a Sunday morning, I was the only one in the place aside from a couple who were deeply engrossed in the Indian version of American Idol playing on the large flat-screen television that hung from one wall. It was slightly disconcerting, as Shiv Sagar is rather large, and I felt awkward, alone in the vastness of it with only the strains of "Pyaar Ki Dastaan" punctuating the silence.

But as soon as the food hit the table, I forgot all about the quiet and the emptiness. The samosas' thick flour crust was studded with fennel seeds and bubbled up slightly in areas like crispy wontons. Inside, the filling (mostly potatos and peas) tasted strongly and pleasantly of mint. The filling had a prolonged slow burn that stayed with us even after we cleansed our palates with mango lassi and an idli. The chutneys served with the samosas left a lot to be desired, however, being thin and runny and relatively bland.

On the plus side, the extra-fluffy mango lassi served with the samosas was fantastic. Although some people may not appreciate having to scoop it out with a spoon, I rather enjoyed it.

Spice of India, 2124 Holly Hall

Directed to this Astrodome-area (it will never be Reliant-area! always Astrodome-area!) Indian restaurant by several friends who swore it was the best Indian food to be found outside of Hillcroft, I headed to the tiny restaurant for dinner last night. It's tucked into a somewhat dingy strip center in the shadow of Reliant Center and the interior doesn't look too promising either. But I was quickly engaged in conversation with the warm, talkative owner -- Mario Noronha -- and the rather plain interior suddenly felt cozy and inviting.

Noronha also owns and runs Bombay Garden, a much larger restaurant at 5600 Hillcroft. He's only had Spice of India open for a year, but judging by the amount of guests who came and went throughout the evening, it's already very popular. During my visit, I remained the only non-Indian in the restaurant. One very talkative Bengali woman sat down next to me for a while and chatted eagerly about the food while she ate her dosa. "I'm just so excited to have an Indian restaurant close to where I live," she enthused. "The operation is really coming along nicely here" -- she gestured to the restaurant's kitchen -- "and it's just so nice not to have to drive all the way to Hillcroft for a good masala dosa." Looking at her enormous pancake, I was suddenly sad I hadn't ordered one myself.

But the supremely good samosas at Spice of India quickly made up for that thought. Also studded with fennel, the crust wasn't quite as thick as the crispy samosas at Shiv Sagar. They tasted as though they'd been baked instead of fried. But the filling was much richer and tastier -- a mild, airy blend of potatoes, lentils, peas and plenty of coriander. The chutneys served alongside the samosas were also much better here. The mint chutney was a bright pop of fresh green both in the bowl and in the mouth, while the sweet imli chutney contained tantalizing chunks of tamarind flesh. I ordered a basket of paratha in addition to the samosas just to soak up the rest of both.

The Winner

Although I liked the exterior construction of the samosas at Shiv Sagar better, the decadent yet subtle filling and excellent chutneys at Spice of India won my heart, as did the location. The traffic at Hillcroft and 59 is a bear, and it's always good to have other excellent Indian options in areas of the city that aren't either Sugar Land or Sharpstown.

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