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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

International House of Pancake

Something strange is afoot in Washington Square Park, good reader: delicious vegan food.

Although The Porkchop Express never rarely associates the word “vegan” with “delicious,” Thiru Kumar (the world-famous “Dosa Man”) has forced us to reconsider. Simply put, he serves some of the finest non-meat eats the city has to offer: dosas, to be precise.

To the uninitiated, dosas are thin Southern Indian crepes made of soaked, stone-ground lentils and rice, often stuffed with curried vegetables or dipped in a chutney. And rumor holds that Thiru makes the city's tops. He has been recognized by food writers (American, European and Asian alike), the Vendy Street Vendor awards (he was two-time runner-up), tour guides (his cart is a stop on the Washington Square Park circuit), the Food Network, and Oprah. But, sad to say, The 'Chop had never checked him out. So on a recent, temperate November day we headed down to the corner of Washington Square South & Sullivan St., to see what the fuss was all about.

The first thing that struck us? The Dosa Man is also The Man. He is truly one of the most likeable folks we've met on the search for delicious, hardworking and gracious, easygoing and generous, able to keep conversations while swirling dosas and prepping plates. This is fairly slow fast food, yet the constant stream of 15 or so lunch-hour line-dwellers never looked agitated. Thiru handles food and fans with equal agility, and folks seemed more than willing to wait.

Thiru hails from Sri Lanka, a small, predominantly Buddhist island (pop: 20 million) about 20 miles off the southern coast of India. It was there that he learned to cook from his mom and grandmother. He worked in a travel agency and taught driving and diving, yet it was his role as swimming instructor that started him down the path to culinary fame. As Thiru put it, people get real hungry swimming all day. So he started fixing up snacks (mostly noodles), and quickly caught the food bug. After immigrating to NYC in 1995 with his wife and daughter, he worked as a chef at Flushing's famed Dosa Hutt. In 2000 he became a citizen, acquired a street-vending permit, and (soon after) opened his own Dosa Cart–the first and, to this day, only of its kind in America.

Thiru wanted to work outdoors, so he chose a park corner at NYU (the school has a relatively large Southeast Asian population). Then he figured out a menu, and set a few ground rules: daily preparation (he runs out every afternoon); fresh ingredients (from veggies and chutneys to oils and spices); strictly vegan (“you'll sleep better, trust me... better dreams!”); traditional methods (stone grinding); and innovative fare (his special roti curry changes daily, and several of the dosa are his own creations).
Time to make the dosa: Thiru Kumar in action

After taking Runner-Up in last year's Vendys, Thiru invested in a larger grill. He can now cook 2 or 3 dosas at a time. The process is pretty mesmerizing, evidence of a master crepe-maker repeating a time-honed tradition: splash of oil, dollop of batter; twist with spoon, flip; stuff and serve. Booyah.
Dosas-a-plenty: clockwise from left, Pondicherry (x2), Jaffna & Uthappam...
...in a super-mega combo to go

The current bestseller is Thiru's Pondicherry Dosa. If this were Italian, you could call it a primavera dosa. Everything about it is fresh: the crisp, light pancake; the dab of ground red chili paste; the assortment of raw veggies and tasty curried potato masala stuffed inside. The finishing touch? A dollop of dried coconut, and some ginger-laced fresh coconut chutney. Oh yeah.
Pondicherry Dosa

The pondicherry might be Thiru's most popular invention, but he offers other exclusives as well. Take, for example, the wonderful Jaffna Dosa, a great yellow crepe made from ground lentils, rice and herbs. The pancake itself is just as light and thin, but slightly chewier with terrific flavor. I really loved it dipped in the side of sambar, a fresh vegetable and lentil soup whose flavors–like everything served here–were clean, crisp and distinct: a twang of ginger, a hint of chili, dal nestled in a light, tomato-rich broth.

One of the more amazing things (aside from the obvious “vegan food never tastes this good”) was the sheer variety of flavors and textures amongst the pancakes. To wit: the Rava Dosa made from wheat flour, rice flour and onions. A pancake unlike any other we tried that day, the dark batter was ground with something reminiscent of toasted fennel seeds or asafetida.
Uthappam Dosa: with real vegetable goodness baked in!

Just as unusual, and even more enticing, was the wonderfully fluffy Uthappam. Thiru cooks this round white lentil-and-rice pancake with a mixture of the same fresh veggies served in the pondicherry. The result is a minor revelation: a pillowy pancake cuddling crisp peppers and onions. Dip it in a bit of the the green chili chutney, and enjoy.

And then summon courage for a side. The samosa is well-made, surprisingly rich and flaky, stuffed with a savory potato mixture. But the real gem? Something the folks at Pushcart NYC tipped us off to: “veggie drumstick,” or chicken-shaped gluten wrapped around a slice of sugar cane. (It's way better than it sounds.) We dipped one in some of Thiru's addictive, ketchup-based chili garlic sauce, chewed on the cane, and pondered the surprising deliciousness of all-vegan cuisine done right.

But why fight it? His customers–students, professors, local workers, a long time Villager, a former Bollywood model, even the guy who lived in the park–sure don't. As one regular put it, Thiru has “captured the imagination of the neighborhood.” And the stomachs, too.

All-vegan all the time, baby! At least when The Dosa Man rolls thru.

New York Dosas
Washington Square Park, Manhattan
(Washington Square South at Sullivan Street)

Monday thru Saturday, 11:00 am - 5:00 pm (tho food usually runs out by 4:00)

Dosas run between $3.00-$5.00
Veggie Drumsticks & Samosas are $1 each
$2 buys you a Malaysian Elephant Cream Soda
And $15 gets you a stylin' NY Dosas T-Shirt (airbrushed by Thiru's buddy)

You can also call ahead to place an order: (917) 710-2092



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this lovely, well-written post about the wonders of vegan food! I hope you continue to expand your tastes to try more veg friendly foods.

5:22 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

right-o, thanks for stopping by. and if you have any standout veg-ish suggestions, please do drop us a note sometime...

3:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this guys food rules

4:15 PM  
Anonymous lebertran said...

I have eaten Dosas when I was on a trip to India. I loved one called 'Mysore Masala Dosa' the most. In the inside of the pancake was garlic paste and potato-cabbage-tomato-onion mixture. It came along with coconut paste and 'sambar'. I loved it.

4:54 AM  

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