Restaurants & Bars

South Indian Lunching: Egg Puff & Idiappam (String hoppers) @ Spice Hut, Newark

Melanie Wong | Oct 15, 200511:24 PM     2

Spice Hut in Newark is a branch of the Sunnyvale original. The owners are Christians from Kerala, so the menu includes meat dishes and regional specialties such as mutton pepper fry, avial and masala fried fish, that are different from the strictly vegetarian South Indian Hindu-owned places. The Newark location also has a number of Desi Chinese dishes. It's a fast food set-up. You order and pay at the counter and are then given a pager that buzzes when your food's ready. Or, there are some items on the steam table and hot box for immediate pick-up. Soft drinks from a dispenser and condiments are self-serve.

Some glossy photos overhead of food displayed on banana leaves offer a guide to some of the choices. In the case of the idiappam (known as string hoppers in Sri Lanka), the picture was rather deceiving. Instead of fine white vermicelli looped artfully into two loose and lacey nests like the picture, I was served two matted wads of stuck-together rice noodles. One had a bit of seam that made me imagine that these are pressed through a sieve. Some of the noodles had a hard, toughened edge, as if they'd been steamed long ago and reheated/dried out in the microwave. With a choice of curry and a side of cold sweet coconut milk, this was a $4.99 combo meal. I picked the delicious yellow mor kozhambu (buttermilk curry) made with bottle gourd (also known as opo in Filipino) from the steam table. The kozhambu itself was very tasty, but it didn't go well with the idiappam. I think an onion-thickened curry with a heavier gravy would have been better with it for more intensity of flavor and to stick to the noodles.

I also had an egg puff, $1.75, from the hot box. Even though it might have been sitting for a while, this baked wonder was quite nice. It cracked me up that a packet of ketchup accompanied it. The flakey pastry reminded me of Pepperidge Farms turnovers when they used to be good. The pastry had been swabbed with a layer of tomatoey curry-flavored jam then wrapped around half a hard-cooked egg. I didn't try it with the ketchup but liked it much the same. The egg didn't add anything to it, and I think I'd get the vegetable or meat versions of this puff next time.

The condiments here are very good. The green chutney is powerfully minty and about the best I've had. The tomato chutney has a much stronger tomato taste than other versions and more assertive chilis. The coconut chutney is my favorite with a smoky chili undertone and more aromatic spices than the plainer versions served elsewhere. If it weren't so salty, I'd eat a bowl of it by itself. The yogurt base for the raita has an almost MSG-like sweet-saltiness and trying it three different times, I just don't like it. The achar mango pickle has too much of what Alexandra Singer calls the toilet cleaner aroma for me. I helped myself to what was dark like tamarind chutney which turned out to be soy sauce, which I guess makes sense for the Desi Chinese food here.

The mango lassi, $2.25, had decent flavor but wasn' t as thick and rich as others. It's also priced a little higher, guess this is where the place makes its money.

The total for this lunch was $9.78, and not very good value.

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Image: http://static.flickr.com/27/50160519_...

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