Last month as part of a group of six, I had the chance to try San Mateos entry to the growing options for South Indian eats in the Bay Area. My friends were pleased that we were the only non-Indians in the house on this weeknight.
With a good sized group, we were able to order a nice assortment from the menu. Our server helped us select set combination plates that offered the dishes we wanted at a special price. We tried
Mixed vegetable pakora Non-greasy and crackly crust over al dente fresh vegetables.
Onion/spinach vada This was an all-round hit. Golden brown with flecks of green from the chopped spinach, it was very crispy on the outside. The interior was airy and moist with intense and complex flavors and lot of heat.
Plain vada and plain idly These accompanied the combo plates. The vada was fried carefully to a tee. The idly was, well, too plain without much fermented flavor or lightness.
Coconut chutney All the dishes were served with a cool, thick and pearly white condiment of grated coconut. It was mildly spiced and provided a near floral and sweet touch to balance the intense heat of the food.
Sambar Every dish was accompanied by a tomatoe-y lentil soup. We had most of it leftover, and by the time I combined all the small servings, I had more than a pint to take home. Those stainless steel cups add up! It was even more delicious the next day. The version here has some broken and whole pieces of lentil for more texture and has a thicker consistency.
Mysore masala dosa Yowza! This dosa has a layer of very intensely flavored and very hot chutney that knocks you upside the head. We all reached for the water pitcher at the same time. The golden blonde crepe was lightly crisp and tender. The filling was not just spiced potatoes but also blended in some other veggies seasoned with masala spice blend.
Onion and chili utthappam This thick pancake was studded with rounds of fresh jalapeño peppers and onions. A nice crackle on the outside, then you bite through to great flavor and a soft interior.
Channa bhatura Complex and wonderfully spiced chickpeas (channa masala) were soft and luscious and crowned with a deep-fried and puffy bread. The poori-like bread was crunchy and chewy at the same time. Some iceberg lettuce salad and pickle completed the plate. This was my personal favorite.
Special thali The thali of the day had bisi bela bath rice, rasam, more sambar, plain rice, a thick papadam, mango pickle, chapati, a carrot curry, and a black cardamon vegetable curry. The rice was a hit, but neither curry made much of an impression.
Carrot halwah This was a wonderful example, hitting just the right degree of doneness to soften the carrots and develop their sugars, yet preserving the fresh taste and color. Lightly sweetened and not cloying.
Plain halwah I loved this one but it was not as popular due to the heavy use of saffron (okay with me!) that left a bitter aftertaste. This was very rich, made with ground almonds, saffron, and cashews, and heavenly served warm.
Wed brought out own wine (no corkage fee). With two mango lassis, our bill came to less than $12 per person with tax and 20% tip. Besides being some of the spiciest and most delicious food around, South Indian is also an inexpensive meal.
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