Lotus Chaat and Spices, a new casual Indian eatery and market on a nondescript stretch of Fourth Street in downtown San Rafael, is proof that delicious, affordable eats can be found in the most unexpected places.
The only restaurant in the North Bay to serve India's traditional street foods, Lotus Chaat may have the ambiance of a cheerful cafeteria but it produces vegetarian dishes that taste of exceptional home cooking. This is not the first time around the block for owner Surinder "Pal" Sroa, whose empire of restaurants already includes Cafe Lotus in Fairfax, Lotus Cuisine of India in San Rafael and Anokha Cuisine of India and Golden Egg Omelet House in Novato.
To reach the spacious and colorfully painted dining room, customers walk through a small specialty market, packed with shelves of fragrant Indian sauces, spices, herbal remedies and snacks, and a large freezer full of take-away packaged foods. It is a more tempting pause on the way out, when the memory of the meal is still fresh and the desire to take a bit of those Indian flavors home is strong.
Though the ingredients of many of the dishes at Lotus Chaat are familiar, their preparations were entirely new to me. Chaat (literally translated as "lick") make up a broad category of Indian snacks that generally share a component of bread or dough, served cool or at room temperature, and are easy to eat on the go.
The first dish I tried was dahl puri—bite-sized, crispy, hollow breads (almost like mini poori) filled with potato, chili and tamarind, and doused in a lightly sweetened yogurt. As my waiter set them down on the table, he advised that these are best eaten first and quickly, before the bread turns soggy. With each mouthful there was an explosion of flavors—tart, spicy, sweet and salty: a wake-me-up for the taste buds.
The menu's chaat offerings are followed by a selection of South Indian specialties, such as giant paper-thin dosas wrapped around a filling of potatoes, tofu and vegetables, and vada, a dense, chewy, deep-fried doughnut-shaped pastry that comes slathered in a cool yogurt sauce or submerged in a bowl of hot sambar, a thick spicy vegetable soup. (A friendly couple originally from Mumbai sitting at the next table described this to me as the "gumbo of India" (minus the meat), and that is a perfect American translation.) A cup of sambar also accompanies the dosas, for dipping like gravy, and the combination is addictive.
Perhaps my favorite dish of all was the finale, chole bhature, large, puffy flatbreads, deep-fried to order and served alongside a warm spiced chickpea stew. Sweet and savory, crunchy and chewy, it's best eaten with the hands and could easily have been a meal in itself.
Most of the vegetarian dishes at Lotus Chaat are priced at a modest $5.99, and portions aren't skimpy. A mango lassi is an excellent foil to the spiciness of dinner; fruit flavored Indian sodas, masala chai tea and madras coffee round out the drinks menu. This is the perfect food for sharing and tasting and having just one bite more.
Lotus Chaat and Spices, 1561 Fourth St., San Rafael. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11am-8pm, and Sunday, 11am-7pm. 415.454.6887.