With hundreds of Indian restaurants in New York City, one would think finding authentic food, or desi khana, would be easy. But many still hark back to the wave of Indian restaurants that opened in the 1970s and ’80s, offering a homogenized derivative of the meaty cuisines of Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Indian state of Punjab — from which the majority of their owners hail. And like the wave of Chinese food before it, Indian food was often made bland for American palates, with a handful of dishes from a few regions becoming ubiquitous.
But it is possible to experience Indian food in its unadulterated form at four New York outposts of Indian chains. During the three years I worked as a journalist in India, I obsessed over sampling different regional cuisines, and in the course of my exploration ate at all of the flagship locations of these Indian chains. In the New York outposts, authenticity is paramount — evidenced by their predominantly Indian clientele.
Seemingly every connoisseur’s favorite South Indian restaurant is Saravana Bhavan. Its philosophy is to make affordable food that tastes exactly like it does in its flagship location in Chennai — a vegetarian cafeteria known as a “hotel.” The chain, which has restaurants in more than a dozen countries with Indian expatriate populations, has blessed New York with two no-frills locations, in Murray Hill and on the Upper West Side.
Though Saravana Bhavan serves great dosas and idlis — traditional South Indian snacks made from a rice-based batter — the lunch thali, a sort of Indian smorgasbord, is where the action is: a half-dozen or so spicy vegetarian curries served with two types of yogurt (plain curd and vegetable raita) to help temper the heat.
Mumbaikars were giddy about the April opening of a Murray Hill outpost of Kailash Parbat, a South Mumbai institution that is famous for its vegetarian chaat, or street snacks, many of which have their origins in the Sindh region, which is now part of Pakistan.
The original Kailash Parbat is not much more than a tattered counter separating steaming snacks from a swarm of hungry locals. It’s famous for its samosas, chole bhature — a chickpea curry served with fried discs of savory dough — and pav bhaji, a sort of sloppy Joe with spicy vegetable filling. The New York location does pitch-perfect versions of these and other dishes I loved at the original Mumbai spot, and their pav (white buns of Portuguese origin that are a key element of many Indian snacks) are actually better than the ones found in Mumbai, because they manage to retain all of the good traits of the original in a better-quality product. And their mango lassis, made from the pulp of superior Indian mangoes, are alone worth the trip.
Another recent addition is the slightly more upscale Moti Mahal Delux, which opened on the Upper East Side in 2012, by the restaurateur Gaurav Anand, who grew up in New Delhi eating the meat-centric Mughlai food at the New Delhi cafeteria of the same name. “I loved their butter chicken, lamb chops and black dal. They were unbelievable, but I could never make them the same way,” said Mr. Anand, who was inspired by the popularity of Saravana Bhavan.
Mr. Anand and his chefs trained at the branch of Moti Mahal Delux in the South Extension neighborhood of New Delhi — the best of the Indian locations — where they learned to replicate those three dishes using Moti Mahal’s signature spice mixture, which now flavors the food at his New York restaurant. Perhaps more crucially, he cooks with Amul butter, the salty brand ubiquitous in Indian restaurants and households.
Perhaps the most authentic of the New York outposts of Indian chains is Anjappar, in Murray Hill — and not only for its food. The low-ceilinged, somewhat frayed venue is reminiscent of the original nonvegetarian cafeterias in Chennai, known as “military hotels,” supposedly because they catered to soldiers who were more likely meat eaters. Anjappar specializes in food from the region known for its peppery meat curries, Chettinad, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Anjappar has restaurants spread throughout the Indian diaspora, and the New York spot, opened in 2012, might not look like much, but its South Indian thalis showcase some of the spiciest, richest and most distinctive dishes in “Curry Hill,” as the neighborhood is sometimes called for its abundance of Indian restaurants. Anjappar serves them with laccha parathas — flaky, gloriously greasy flatbreads common in the south of India. “The smell and flavor of the food here takes me back to India,” said Hari Ganapathy, a regular whose roots are in Tamil Nadu. “It’s almost as good as Mom’s.”