Udipi Cafe, the vegetarian Indian restaurant in Longwood, has closed. Besides offering another choice for vegetarians, Udipi also provided a taste of some of the more authentic Indian cuisine in the area. And no one there ever asked if you what temperature you wanted your food. If the dish was supposed to be hot, then, dammit, it would be hot. I remember how the rasam soup burned my tonsils as it made its way — way too slowly — down my gullet. It was wonderful.
Authentic, vegetarian, reasonably priced — of course it was destined to fail. Click below to read my original review of Udipi from 2007.
There is a complaint I receive — really it’s more of a lamentation — that occurs in a regular cycle, like the phases of the moon. By my calculations, and judging by the night sky, I’m due to be hit again soon. So in anticipation of hearing from those of you who grieve for more restaurants with vegetarian fare I give you Udipi Café, an all-vegetarian restaurant.
As an added bonus, Udipi will also serve to quell the complaints of those who crave more authentic Indian restaurants as well as those who wish for better local representation of underrepresented cuisines. Udipi Café does all that and it does it well.
Udipi qualifies as a chain restaurant with locations in Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The same owners also own Woodlands Restaurant in Langley Park, Maryland, and Fairfax, Virginia, but are not associated with the Woodlands in Orlando.
But like the local Woodlands, which is also meat-free, Udipi Café focuses on the cuisine of south India.
The name, in fact, is a derivation of Udupi, a city in the state of Karnataka on the southwestern coast of India. The cuisine is comprised of legumes, grains and vegetables, which are mixed with myriad spices and served in curries, dosai, soups and breads. A meal here can be an exciting adventure for those willing to try something out of the ordinary. And it can be an inexpensive yet filling meal – trust me, you won’t miss the meat.
Unlike at other area Indian restaurants, no one at Udipi Café will ask you “How do you want you dish prepared, mild, medium or hot?” regardless of its traditional preparation. Here, mild dishes are automatically made mild and hot dishes, which are not necessarily noted as such on the menu, will be astonishingly hot.
Take the rasam ($2.50), a traditional soup that is sort of like a more watery version of tomato soup with a touch of tamarind. At Udipi Café the rasam might be described as liquid fire. I took one sip and I had a picture of those National Geographic films that show rivers of burning lava flowing down the side of a volcano. That’s what it felt like going down the back of my throat.
But then there’s the iddly ($3.95), a steamed cakelike appetizer made with rice and lentil powder that is so mild as to be nearly flavorless. The key with the iddly is to eat it with a chutney, such as the coconut served here, or sambar, a pea and vegetable stew for dunking.
Dosai, sometimes spelled dosa, is also a specialty, especially the Mysore masala dosai ($7). Dosai are most often referred to as crepes, but they are generally larger, have a shiny, almost shellacked look and a crispier paperlike texture. And they’re made with rice flour. The masala dosai was filled with a mixture of seasoned potatoes and onions. To eat it, you tear off a hunk and dip it in the coconut chutney.
I also tried the special rava dosai ($7.45), which was quite different from the others. It was made with cream of wheat and served more like a large flatbread, dotted with onions and chilies.
Perhaps you’re more familiar with the chana masala ($8.95), a dish of chickpeas and chunks of potatoes cooked with onions and spices, served with rice, raita and pickle. The raita is a cool yogurt sauce and the pickle is a hot and spicy rind.
You probably haven’t had the pongal avial ($8) in any other area restaurants. I resembles a porridge of rice and lentils and topped with a sprinkling of nuts. It’s served with avial, a yogurt and coconut sauce.
For dessert there are the usual rasmali, gulab jamoon and such, but skip those and have the carrot halwa ($2.50), grated carrots cooked in honey and butter. It is amazingly good.
Despite the ridiculously reasonable prices of the a la carte dinner menu, you can find an even better deal on the lunchtime buffet ($7.95 weekdays, $9.95 weekends), with a representative array of traditional dishes plus a masala dosai brought fresh to your table.
Udipi occupies the space formally held by Clay Oven. Let’s face it, it isn’t a pretty restaurant but it’s kempt. One wall is painted bright red and another is an off white. Tables are crude brown laminate and are set with paper placemats and extra paper napkins for when you brow begins to bead.
The staff is friendly, but I wish they were a bit more helpful with menu recommendations. I was lucky to have on one of my visits someone from southern India to offer guidance.
But even if you don’t have someone to show you the way, go to Udipi Café and just start exploring. You’ll find a whole new world of wonderful dishes.