Until a month ago, it had been almost 13 years since our last meal at All India Café. With the growing number of local restaurants specializing in food from the Indian subcontinent vying for attention, I just couldn’t make time to get back. But with my goal of revisiting the Weekly’s 2016 Best of Pasadena winners I hadn’t been to and those which were only distant memories, All India, which won this year’s poll for Best Indian Food and Best Restaurant Staff, was high on my list.
When they opened in 1997, their main competitors were Mezbaan, Akbar, New Delhi Palace and Radhika. Mezbaan, alas, lost its luster and finally died a slow, painful death, but the other three continue to shine, with Radhika now in South Pasadena. Still, All India Café stands apart from the rest.
As I wrote in my 2003 review: “The real strength of All India Café isn’t in the foods you can get elsewhere, but in those you can’t.”
For instance, they serve frankies, a locally, rarely seen delight that’s a popular street food in India’s major cities consisting of a tortilla filled with chicken, lamb or a cauliflower-potato mixture, chutney and onions ($9.95-$12.50).
They also serve bhel puri ($5.50), crushed deep-fried wafers mixed with rice, potatoes, onions, noodles and spices, then garnished with cilantro, a mix of chutneys and lime. There’s also aloo tikki, or potato pancakes ($3.95) which contain chopped onions, tamarind and green chili chutney. And there is uttapam ($6.50), a chewy Bombay griddle cake made from cream of wheat, onions, tomato, green chili and cilantro, served with sambar, or lentil soup, and coconut chutney. Sambar and coconut chutney come with idli (a rice and lentil flour steamed cake — $6.95).
In the 13 years since that review, All India Café’s menu has barely changed. and its prices have only nominally budged. Other surviving Indian restaurants of the ’80s and ’90s have expanded and modernized: Akbar, with an increase in beguiling regional dishes, and Radhika, whose kitchen now turns out marvelous “fusion” Indian cuisine.
Over the years there’s been a proliferation of Pasadena restaurants specializing in Indian and Indian-adjacent cuisines: Sitar, now Bollywood Masala (2001), Tibet Nepal House (2003), Himalayan Café (2011), California Chutney and Mint Leaf (both 2015). But not until the recently opened Annapurna Grill (June) whose kitchen specializes in southern Indian food has one challenged All India Café on its own turf).
Annapurna, like All India, serves idli (2/$5) with coconut chutney and sambar plus sweet tomato chutney. The menu offers 17 dosa variants ($6.95-$10.45) and eight types of uttapam ($7.95 – $10.95). And it features other dishes found in southern India
All India cooks up ven pongal, a southern comfort dish and one of the most common naivedyam (offerings to the gods) prepared for Hindu feast days; and bisi bele bath ($8.95), a spicy rice, lentil and vegetable recipe originating in Karnataka (a southwestern Indian state).
Some of Annapurna’s curries ($11.95 – $13.95) are labeled with their southern Indian area of origin (e.g., Andhra). Other descriptives such as pulusu (sour) or vepudu (fry) indicate cooking styles particularly popular in the south. Dishes like guthi vankaya (Telugu for eggplant) or goat pepper fry, unidentified by region or cooking method, are instantly recognizable as southern by those familiar with the area.
Like any bright and shiny object, a restaurant whose menu is as unusual as Annapurna’s attracts attention, and I too am less than midway through its must-try dishes. But my recent meals at All India Café have convinced me that even with its single uttapam, dosa and idli, its lack of goat, doughnuts or naivedyam, the restaurant is just as appealing as it was 20 years ago — no menu expansion, no experiment in contemporary fusion cooking required.
Reacquainting myself with All India’s delectable aloo tikki and shrimp chat (marinated and grilled black tiger shrimp tossed into a bowl of bhel puri – $8.95), its tongue-tingling lamb vindaloo ($14.95) and spectacular grilled green chicken tikka (marinated in mint and basil – $12.95) accompanied by a $24 bottle of San Antonio Winery’s award-winning Three Pines Black Granite red blend). was a real dinner treat.
Last week we tried two lunch specials: a chicken tikka masala combo plate with aloo mattar (potato and green peas in a tomato, ginger and green chili sauce), dal (lentils), rice, naan (flat bread) and mixed salad ($15.95) and a chicken frankie with salad, raita (spiced yogurt) and achaar (pickled vegetables) — $8.50. The chicken in both curry and frankie was succulent white meat. The achaar was amazing — carrot, jalapeño and cauliflower in vinegar with black mustard and anise seeds. Our iced tea ($2.95), like hot chai, was perfumed with clove and cardamum.
All India Café’s atmosphere is heightened by Indian pop music, low lighting, some greenery, a few wooden screens and some truly tacky Indian velvet paintings, including dancing girls and a picnic scene reminiscent of Omar Khayyam’s poem about a loaf of bread and jug of wine. The chairs are comfortable, the kitchen open and busy, the staff effusive. It’s as easy to understand their winning the poll for best staff as for best Indian food.
I ended that old review of All India by saying, “It’s the unusual food that brings customers back over and over again. … All India Cafe offers unique dishes you can’t get anywhere else. And that is definitely worth the price of admission!”
I’d like to amend that statement. All India’s menu isn’t quite as unique as it was prior to this year, but its quality, service and atmosphere insure its continued popularity notwithstanding the competition.