“Chapati up!” shouts a voice as an arm bearing a plate of warm, round bread straight off the tava skillet bursts through a kitchen window to a waiting employee. The restaurant is buzzing with activity but an eager diner hears him anyway and snatches up his prize. On this Saturday night, a “Live Jalebi Night,” the month-old casual eatery and grocery store is as busy as a Mumbai marketplace with dozens of smiling faces. There’s no particular order to the customer service, but everyone is so friendly and helpful it doesn’t matter.
After perusing the five or so aisles of clean, well-stocked and well-lit shelves of Indian food staples, I sidle up to the prepared food display case to make my choices. Each curry, soup, stew and rice looks delicious so I get a small container of everything. They gladly pack up my large to-go bag throwing in a few extras to sample. “What are these?” I ask, pointing to a stack of bright orange spirals of glistening dough. As he throws a couple in, he says, “They’re jalebi. It’s fresh jalebi night. They’re making them outside. Much better right out of the oil.” That explains the line of parents, children and people of all ages out in the parking lot.
Sweet jalebi is popular in countries of South Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It is made by deep-frying batter made from madia flour (a softer, less gluteny white flour) in circular or pretzel-like shapes which are then soaked in sugar syrup, typically saffron-colored and often flavored with orange or rose water. Watching them making the jalebi in a large vat of hot oil is like watching them make funnel cakes at the country fair. But the syrup dip adds that vibrant color and flavor. It’s similar to a donut with its crispy outside and like a jelly candy with its juicy finish. They weren’t bad reheated at home but for the real thing, call Namaste Spiceland to see when they’re cooking them live again.
Back at the display case they offer a wide range of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. In fact, meat touches no part of this establishment. The food, however, is very hearty and satisfying. Take, for instance, the saag paneer, everyone’s favorite leafy green delicacy with fresh, unripened cheese cubes. The flavor is more subtle than I’ve had but it tasted very fresh and the paneer had a wonderful squeakiness to it. The chickpea channa was rich and satisfying. The lentil-rich dal was thinner than I’m used to, but tasty nonetheless, and the lentil soup had a serious heat that surprised and delighted me.
The mixed vegetables are uniformly dark green with snap beans and other tasty bits. And the vegetable pulao, like Chinese fried rice, is full of colorful veggies. The plain basmati is a must-get as well, though, to soak up all the other curries. Our very favorite was called the Punjab Kali, a light colored curry the ingredients of which I cannot seem to unearth. You’ll just have to trust me and the members of my family.
Be sure to throw in a few samosas, those potato-filled packets of fried goodness that only get better with the accompanying red or green chutney. I got enough food to feed four of us with leftovers for a mere $40.
You don’t have to get food to-go at Namaste. There are a dozen or so small tables in the cheerful dining area. Many people, including solo diners, go for the combinations ek and do (one and two, I believe) for $6.49 and $7.49 respectively. Both combos include basmati rice, chapati, raita (yogurt dipping sauce), two vegetarian choices from the buffet, pickle and onion. The dollar difference gets you samosas or pakora, sweet little fritters — worth the extra buck if only for a snack later on. If your wallet is really thin, go for the rice plate with two vegetables for little more than $5. They tell me the chais (spiced teas) are very good and only $1 ($2 for a large).
Besides the combinations, there is a menu of various chaat. Chaat is a savory snack, often served in roadside stalls in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. They’re all based on fried dough with various other ingredients and at Namaste range in price from $2.99 to $5.49. Chaat comes from a word meaning to devour with relish or to eat noisily, so have at it.
There’s the chaat called chani churi, for instance, hollow round breads filled with spiced water, tamarind paste, potato onion and chickpeas — a blast of flavor. Dahi vada are fried flour balls in yogurt. While katoori chaat are deep-fried mini pie shells filled with chickpeas, potato, chili and other spices, sprouts, chutneys, tomato, onion and more.
For the non-Indians among us, there are all kinds of new things to learn about and try at Namaste. Sev puri, bhalla papdi, Chinese bhel, for instance. And what could a drink like rooh afza or a Badam shake be? They’re inexpensive so it’s worth experimenting. Namaste serves specialties from both Northern and Southern India. My friend from Nagpur in Central India explained the difference. “You’ll find lots of breads and curries in the North,” says Anu. “Much of what you find in restaurants here — naan, roti, curries such as palak paneer and aloo ghobi, samosas and grilled meats are northern. There’s liberal use of chickpeas. Generally speaking,” she goes on, “South Indian cooking is based around rice, lentils and stews. Tamarind and coconut may be involved.” So the display case of dal (lentil stew), chana (chickpea stew), paneer, spicy lentil soup, rice pulao, chaat and samosas covers the country top to bottom. Just an interesting side note, the etymology of curry is from a Tamil word, kari, meaning sauce. Later the spice blend often used to make these sauces came to be known as curry powder but not all curries are made from curry powder.
Namaste Spiceland may not be as fancy as some of the new vegetarian restaurants popping up around town, but it’s the kind of place you go back to again and again for a reasonably priced, hearty meal. Being close to the intersection of Hill Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, I’m thinking students at Pasadena City College and Caltech or vegan parade-goers and pre-parade campers might find this a great, inexpensive option. Some items have a spicy kick while others are mild, bordering on boring. In general, however, the food is not greasy, the quantity is substantial, and the products are fresh. I suggest coming in some evening you’re up for an adventure and ask the friendly, energetic employees to recommend something.
270 N. Hill Ave., Pasadena | (626) 345-5514 | No Alcohol/ Major Cards Accepted