Bhanu’s Indian Grocery & Cuisine’s only been in business about four months, but it’s already got a following. All you’ve got to do is check out Yelp or any other user-driven Web sites and you’ll see a slew of reviews with nary a negative among them.
Bhanu’s is the kind of place you either love or hate. It’s half highly compressed grocery store — kind of like a Southeast Asian 7-Eleven with three aisles packed almost floor to ceiling with exotic stuff, from huge bags of rice and lentils to frozen Indian entrees; and half informal restaurant, with family members manning (and womaning) rear kitchen and front register.
Los Angeles is loaded with these kinds of dual-purpose ethnic eatery-emporia, ranging from Jewish delis to Chinese bakeries. But they’re not all that common around here. Porta Via has Italian food by the plate or pound, along with a neat selection of imported groceries and wines. Nicole’s in South Pasadena is similar, with the focus on France. And, of course, Bristol Farms and Whole Foods.
But despite the number of good Indian restaurants in Pasadena, the closest combo restaurant/grocery prior to Bhanu’s advent was probably the branch of India Sweets & Spices in Atwater Village; too far for me. So my occasional curries largely relied on Trader Joe’s simmer sauces and/or prepared pastes and powders from Cost Plus.
But now there’s Bhanu’s. Two doors down from the TJ’s in the mini-mall on the southeast corner of Huntington Drive and Rosemead Boulevard, it’s perfect for a drop-in once I’ve stowed all my staples: eggs, cheese, milk, bread, veggies, wine, etc. If I’m feeling courageous, I can buy spices to customize my curries; a little less so, one of the seemingly hundreds of pastes and powders. If I want to cook for an army, monstrous sacks of lentils, rice and chappati flour are there for the getting.
But even if I’m looking for something readymade to pop into the oven or microwave, I can rely on Bhanu’s. They stock frozen naan pizza and Pillsbury samosas and roti (“ready to puff”). Who knew? I thought all they did were biscuits and pie crusts. There are lots of mixes: uttapam, gulab jamon and dosa, to name a few. Foil pouches of vegetable curries and sauces to pour on meat. And a refrigerated section filled with lassi (mint, mango and plain), ginger beer and containers of vibrantly colored halwa and burfi squares.
If you don’t recognize most of these names and don’t want them in your pantry until you know what they are, don’t worry – many of them can be sampled on the restaurant side of Bhanu’s. Samosas (yummy vegetable-filled dumplings) are only $2.25 for three.
Lassi (a yogurt-based drink) is $2.50; Gulab jamon (fritters in sugar syrup) $1.99; gajar halwa (carrot pudding with nuts) is $4.99.
On my first visit, I didn’t even contemplate cooking. Instead I ordered take away from the restaurant menu: tandoori chicken (8 pieces $11.99), masala dosa (a huge south Indian pancake made from ground rice and lentil rolled up with an onion and potato-based stuffing – $3.99 which comes with both a tangy chutney and a container of sambhar -a spicy vegetable and lentil sauce), Baingan bharta (eggplant curry – $7.99) and aloo gobi (cauliflower and potato curry – $6.99).
While my meal (actually “meals” since hubby and I each got two full dinners from what I brought home) was being prepared, I enjoyed myself examining all the exotic grocery products and selecting a few mass-produced snacks and sweets to serve as appetizer and finale to our meal.
Two of these: Laxmi Sesame Balls (jaw breaker sweets made from sesame seeds and honey – $1.49) and Haldiram’s “nut cracker” (truly spicy – chili, clove, cumin, black pepper, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and asafetida – coated fried peanuts whose cost I don’t know because they seem to have forgotten to put them on my bill) were fabulous. Just remember to suck on the balls to soften them before biting down.
Two others, Gaar bhel chikki (a sweet block of puffed rice, ragjira and peanuts reminiscent of rice crispy marshmallow squares – $.99 and a container of jalabi (coils of batter deep-fried and soaked in fragrant, spiced syrup – $2.50) weren’t as successful. The chikki tasted stale (when I looked at the manufacture date (July 2009) and the expiration date (January 2011), the reason was clear. And the jalabi, usually among my favorite sweets, were worse; the frying oil was definitely off taste. (I tasted twice before I gave up and tossed them.)
The food that comes out of the kitchen is definitely fresh. Among the meats are fish, shrimp, chicken, lamb and goat. While they don’t have the range of meat curries of many more formal restaurants (I miss rogan josh and vindaloo in particular), Bhanu’s features some South Indian dishes you don’t often find such as coconut fish curry ($9.99), dosa and vegetarian street food like idli (steamed lentil-rice cakes served with chutney and lentil soup) medu vada (deep-fried lentil “donuts” with coconut sauce) and batata vada (potato-peanut fritters), each only $3.50.
Whether you eat in or carry out, the food comes in Styrofoam and plastic.