You'd never go into Rasthal if someone hadn't pointed it out to you. It's in your stereotypical north-O.C. minimall in a forgotten part of the county (technically Anaheim, but throw a rock and it'll practically land in Cypress). The signs painted on the outside windows promise catering (including Maharastrian, Chinese and Italian -- I kid you not). You'd never know it served hot food, either, having crossed the threshold -- the only items in the display case are sweets and dry chaat mixes. If you left, though, you'd miss out on some tasty treats.
This is a South Indian place with a few North Indian items on the menu, a nod to the Gujarati heritage of one of the cooks. While you can get dal and samosas here, you can't get such Punjabi standbys as pakoras or naan. It's a vegetarian place, too, so you will not find any chicken tikka masala or lamb rogan josh.
It doesn't matter. 90% of the magic of an Indian restaurant is contained in the vegetable dishes. I've always thought that meat dishes were superfluous in an Indian joint, available only to satisfy the people for whom a dinner without meat is not a dinner at all.
Rasthal operates on the India Sweets & Spices method, sort of -- but it's all freshly cooked, not in steam trays under heat lamps. Most people order a thali, which is a complete dinner served in a round dish with several compartments. Ours, which cost $6.99, came with two vegetables (they change daily) -- we chose vegetable korma (vegetables in a coconut curry sauce) and bengan bhartha (eggplant), rice, a very interesting take on raita (no cucumbers, there were little seeds in it that looked like miniature garbanzo beans), dal or chana (lentils or garbanzo beans -- we chose the latter), a portion of khaman dhokla (a slightly sweet cornbread that is a staple of Gujarati cuisine), achar ("soap pickles"), several puris (round flatbread), a bunch of lentil crackers, sambal, and a piece of pistachio halwa.
We also, not knowing the portion sizes, ordered a masala dosa (which is a huge wheat-and-lentil crepe wrapped around a filling of spiced potatoes and sometimes peas, and is probably the best-known South Indian dish), an order of dahi puri (crispy lentil pockets with garbanzo beans, potatoes, yoghurt and tamarind sauce, a common snack), and mango lassi (a drink made with yoghurt and mango).
The dahi puri came out first. I've usually had dahi puri as a bowl of "stuff", where the puris are mixed with the toppings. These came out with the toppings actually inside the puris. Much easier to eat -- you could use your (right) hand -- and very, very good. One of the ladies came out to see how the Americans were coping with Indian food, and was very happy to see that we polished off the dahi puri.
After a suitable delay, the thali came out. We were astonished by the amount of food -- there wasn't a lot of each kind of food except the vegetables, but there was overall a LOT of food. All of it was quite tasty -- I really liked the korma, Mrs Ubergeek was heavily into the raita and the sambal. I love khaman dhokla, and this had the required strip of baked green bell pepper on top. The crackers were good, the puris were freshly made. The rice was unseasoned and slightly overcooked (which often means the meal is to be eaten with one's hand, since overcooked rice sticks together better), but nobody orders a thali for the rice anyway.
The masala dosa appeared in due course, with an enormous bowl of a different sambal, this time with carrots and okra in it. It was the right size for a dosa, but that was the end of the upside to the dosa. The downside was a heavy, heavy use of ghee (clarified butter). There was a yellow film left in both the vegetable dishes, and the masala dosa tasted principally of ghee -- not to mention that the dosa itself was over cooked and crispy in places, which makes it hard to eat, since typically you tear off a piece of the dosa and grab some of the filling, Ethiopian-style.
At the end, the lassis appeared. Often, mango lassis are shorthand for "milkshake with mango in it". These were better than most, with a slightly salty tang that means they used the proper yoghurt (runny, the same used for raita) in it. It was sweet enough, but not cloying with honey, and was thin enough to have ice cubes in it (which, when it's 90+ degrees out, is like a sign of Paradise).
Prices are higher than IS&S, but the decor is better, there's actual table service, and the food is cooked when you order; the thali was $6.99, the masala dosa $5.00, the lassis $2.50 each, and the dahi puri $4. We took half a pound of assorted halwa to go, which added $3 to the price -- the total, including a tip, was $30... but it was a shamefully large amount of food, and next time we'll skip the dosa.
We'll definitely be back, though, overuse of ghee notwithstanding.
Rasthal Vegetarian Food
2755 W. Lincoln Ave. (slightly east of Dale St.)
Anaheim, CA 92801