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Publication Date: Friday, October 18, 2002

Fast food, Southern India-style Fast food, Southern India-style (October 18, 2002)

By Kelsey Lane

It took me months of driving past the elusive Saravana Bhavan before stopping in to look at a menu. Even then, I didn't make it much further than just inside the door.

After retrieving the takeout menu, I made special note of the lengthy row of chairs outside the door, provided for patrons waiting for tables. That's presumptuous, I thought, wondering if they'd even be around to see the new year.

But I was wrong. Turned out the team behind Mountain View's Saravana Bhavan knew full well what they were doing when they put out those chairs.

Though the southern Indian vegetarian restaurant may be a newcomer to the Midpeninsula, it's hardly new. It's part of a chain that began in southern India about 20 years ago and now consists of more than 25 locations. And in Chennai (formerly Madras), the plethora of Saravana Bhavan branches serve 70,000 people a day. There, Saravana Bhavan (which means "house of the Hindu god Saravana") is known as a fast-food establishment.

Enter the Silicon Valley location, which opened in April, presumably to cater to the area's sizable southern Indian population. But the rest of us are lucky to benefit from the flavors of this unique culture.

I ran into Saravana Bhavan around 6:30 p.m. to meet a close friend I hadn't seen in months. She was waiting at one of the cafeteria-style tables, which are packed together for optimum seating capacity.

My friend had ordered a "special milk tea" ($2) and was sipping it out of a stainless steel cup that rested on a high-sided metal saucer. Taking her lead, I ordered one. We pored over the menu as we both sipped the brew, which was reminiscent of masala chai tea (spiced black tea) with milk.

We attempted to decipher the choices by interrogating the very gracious server. Even then, our feeble understanding of the dishes' contents was laughable. Meanwhile, the place began filling up, and I felt guilty for hogging him.

Finally, he said, "Look, I will bring you something good."

He made good on his promise. Every single dish that came to our table was a delight. Visitors to the restaurant who are unfamiliar with the menu offerings need only close their eyes and point to have a delicious experience.

We began with medhu vada ($3.50), which were two lentil-floured, savory doughnuts, paired with a subtle coconut chutney and a ramekin of sambar , a mixture akin to lentil soup.

Next came the poori , similar to a flatbread but deep-fried, so it puffs up and becomes crispy ($4). This tantalizing treat was enough for two to share and came with a slightly spicy cauliflower curry and a potato-onion side dish.

All dishes are presented on a metal platter called a thali , beautiful and full of vibrant colors, with the flatbread as the focal point and savory accompaniments around the edge.

Our final indulgence was the "mini tiffin ." I later learned tiffin means a light snack, but for us it was more dinner, and enticing at that. It consisted of a small masala dosa , mini idli , coconut chutney, and almond halva ($6.25). The tiffin is a great way to try a variety of this restaurant's specialties in miniature form.

First off, dosa refers to a crepe-like flatbread or pancake made from either rice and lentil flours or from semolina and rice flours. Saravana Bhavan carries both varieties. Our masala dosa was made of rice and lentil flours, shatteringly crisp on the outer side and slightly spongy and soft on the inner side, rolled up with a dollop of the aforementioned potato and onion mixture inside. On a subsequent visit, my husband and I ordered the full-size version, which came not only with coconut chutney and sambar, but also with an enticing pureed cilantro condiment and some tomato chutney for $5.50.

The idli are patties made of pounded rice and lentils, allowed to slightly ferment. These miniature items were served resting in sambar.

The dessert portion of the mini tiffin was a pleasant halva, a fluorescent orange-tinted mound of sweet almond puree redolent of cardamom.

By dinner's end, the restaurant was completely packed and a line snaked out the door. People were also sitting on the chairs outside the restaurant. We began to feel we should tear ourselves away in order to allow others the same chance at some great Indian vegetarian food.

As I left the restaurant, I pondered my newfound discovery of this local restaurant, where tandoori, naan, and chicken tikka - dishes of the northern Punjab region of India - will not be found on the menu. Full of inspiration, I wanted to tell everyone I know about Saravana Bhavan.

Saravana Bhavan, 600 West El Camino Real (between Castro and Calderon), Mountain View, (650)-625-0460

Hours: Tues.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; closed Mon.

Atmosphere: Stark cafeteria feel. Bright white walls with '50s diner-style chairs, padded with a bold blue vinyl covering. Seating is designed to pack in multitudes of people. Expect a wait as the evening progresses, and on weekend nights.

Highlights: Unless you're from southern India, you'll most likely view your trip to Saravana Bhavan a culinary adventure. Close your eyes, point to anything on the menu, then wait for a delightful surprise to arrive. Or, try this line-up for two: onion bajji appetizer (deep-fried savory bread puffs filled with onions, $3.50), one poori (puffed flatbread, $4), and a masala dosa (rice-lentil crepe with potato-onion filling, $5.50), plus two hot milk teas ($2 each).

Price Range: Starters $2.50-$4; Entrees $5-$7.50; combination meal $8.95

Reservations: No Credit Cards: Yes Parking: Small lot and street parking Alcohol: No Takeout: Yes Highchairs: Yes Wheelchair Access: Yes Banquet: No Catering: Yes Outdoor seating: No Noise Level: Medium


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