Udupi Cafe (Columbia Heights, MN)
By Karen Cooper and Bruce Schneier
On Central Avenue in Columbia Heights, inside a nondescript commercial building, is the best Indian restaurant in the Twin Cities. It's a vegetarian restaurant, but don't let that worry you. The food's so good that even dedicated carnivores will enjoy Udupi Cafe.
India is a huge country, and "Indian cuisine" is actually many different cuisines from many different cultures and traditions. Many familiar Indian dishes are actually Northern Indian. Udupi serves spicy vegetarian food from the south of India. Expect new, and surprisingly delicious, dishes.
There's so much to choose from on Udupi's menu, we hardly know where to start. We love the dosai. These are crepes, served rolled around your choice of fillings. We like the mysore masala dosai, filled with hot chutney, and spiced potatoes and onions. But honestly, they're all good. We like these better than the similar uthappams.
The aloo gobi -- a mixture of potatoes and cauliflower -- is delicious. So is the baigan bartha: a roasted eggplant dish with potatoes and onions. Be sure to order the gobi manghuriani, a deliciously spiced cauliflower dish that will single-handedly guarantee that you'll be back for more.
Chaat papri is Udupi's don't-miss appetizer. It's a bowl of crispy rice and noodles mixed with yogurt, potatoes, onions, coriander, and tamarind chutney: a lively amalgamation of flavors and textures, and a good example of the main dishes to come.
Even simple appetizers like samosas are delicious here. We recommend ordering their appetizer sampler for the table, so you can taste the samosas, the fried lentil donuts, the fried cheese, and more. The plate comes with tamarind and mint sauces, which are excellent.
Don't forget some of the interesting rice entrees. We especially recommend the bagala bhath, rice with yogurt and served with mustard seeds and cucumber, but they're all good. And the breads. Order one of the varieties of paratha, or the pillow-like batura.
The spices are rich and exotic, and the food can be hot. Be sure to ask for it mild if that's what you want. And, unfortunately, if you're not acquainted with the subtleties of South Indian cuisine, it's easy to order several dishes that all taste the same. If you're confused, ask your waiter for help.
Udupi has lunch buffets every day of the week. The key to buffets is turnover. With enough customers, dishes are replenished often. Udupi has enough people there for lunch. Their weekend buffet is amazing: over two dozen items ranging from breads to main dishes to curries to desserts. At $11, it's the best way to get acquainted with the amazing food this restaurant has to offer. Weekday buffets are smaller, maybe half as many choices, but the price is only $8.
As good as the buffets are, we recommend ordering off the menu instead if you're with a larger party. The menu has more interesting choices, and you'll get more personal attention from the kitchen. Indian food is all about the spicing, and a careful hand in the kitchen makes a big difference.
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