Spotting the Healthy Chicken Cafe sign from across the street (1781 Westwood Blvd., north of Santa Monica Blvd.), we were intrigued by the unexpected qualifier “also vegan / vegetarian.” An item on Grub Street cleared up the mystery: Formerly known as Ambala Dhaba, HCC is a Northern Indian restaurant that has sought to rebrand itself to attract a wider clientele. As we learned on our visit tonight, the genial proprietor takes his vegetarian customers very seriously, eagerly pointing out the separate utensils and even the separate oven he uses for meat and non-meat. Though HCC has a standard array of Indian vegetarian dishes, from which customers make their selection at the counter, we decided to try the innovative naan-a-rito, a combination of those same ingredients wrapped burrito-style in the traditional Indian flatbread. Perhaps the most impressive element of HCC’s presentation, the golden, chewy naan is prepared right before your eyes, rolled out, spread on a convex mold, and almost instantly baked in the tandoori oven. The customer can then choose the filling: any combination of vegetables or legumes and basmati rice, supplemented by cooked carrots, chopped raw tomato, raw onion, raita, cilantro, tamarind and mint chutneys, and a salad of cabbage and radish. As with a Mexican burrito, there may be a law of diminishing returns as the number of ingredients increases; simple is generally better. In this case, we preferred our chickpea naan-a-rito to the one with peas and potatoes, perhaps because the former was prepared without the raita and thus better allowed the flavor of the main ingredient, the savory, mildly spicy chickpeas, to come through. The other noteworthy flavor in both naan-a-ritos was the sweet, tangy cooked carrots. (The freshly baked naan, of course, was another high point of the ensemble.) Our drinks, mango and mint lassis, were both as good as any we have had, the mint possibly better than average with its strong, fresh flavor and mild sweetness working in counterpoint to the sour bite of the yogurt. As befits its Westwood location, HCC is preeminently a place for students looking for inexpensive, nutritious, filling food (each giant naan-a-rito was easily enough for a meal in itself). Though a bit of trial and error may be needed before you find your own optimal naan-a-rito (or other dish), HCC provides more than enough reason for vegetarians, if not chickens, to make that trip across the road.
Wandering in the hot midday sun on the edge of Culver City, we came upon Samosa House East (10700 W. Washington Blvd., at Overland), a vegetarian (and vegan-friendly) oasis a few blocks from the older Samosa House market. It was a fortunate discovery. For very little money, we were each able to get a combo plate featuring a choice of three dishes plus rice, raita, and naan. These included dal, subtly spiced to allow the taste of the lentils to come through along with a chili-generated kick; savory aloo curry, with tender chunks of potato; flavorful, slightly bitter baby eggplant; pleasantly garlicky chana masala; pakora curry, fried vegetables in a bright, creamy yogurt sauce; and jackfruit, which reminded us of a lemony artichoke. We mopped up the various sauces with our crisp, puffy naan, one plain and one garlic, and cooled ourselves with our sweet, thick mango lassis. Though full, we squeezed in a samosa, a crisp, delicately fried pastry stuffed with potatoes, peas, and carrots that tasted, surprisingly, of cinnamon, a flavor that grew on us, especially when we dipped pieces in the tamarind-date and cilantro-mint chutneys. As we finished the last morsels, we found ourselves in a Utopian revery in which Samosa House had miraculously replaced McDonald’s. Maybe it was the lingering effects of the heat or the soothing warmth of the spices, or maybe it was the combination of speed, cheapness, and, yes, quality that made us believe another world really was possible.
To our growing repertoire of Indian restaurants, we may now add Bombay Cafe (12021 Pico Blvd., near Bundy), a sophisticated, innovative Sawtelle eatery that we discovered, by chance, a couple of months ago. Our meal tonight, our third, began with house-made pappadums, which unlike the usual dry, flat, salty lentil version, were light and puffy, conjured from a rice flour lightly seasoned with chili and cilantro and great for dipping in the sweet and spicy pumpkin chutney. Our mango lassis, meanwhile, were creamy, tangy, and sweet. For an appetizer, we ordered the vegetarian uttapam, a semolina griddle cake topped with tomato, onion, and cilantro (we asked the kitchen to hold the chilis) that was golden on the bottom, light and chewy on the top, and served with a creamy coconut chutney that tasted as though it had just been scooped from the shell. For our main course, we ordered two vegetarian thali plates, each of which came with a choice of two vegetarian dishes, plus a hearty lentil dal; fluffy basmati rice; puffy, tender naan; kachumber, a refreshing, peppery salad of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and green chilis tossed with lemon juice and cilantro; and a raita, a cool, creamy, tangy mixture of yogurt, cucumber, and onion. For our two dishes (times two), we chose cholas, chickpeas cooked in a mildly spicy tomato sauce with onions and ginger; green beans, chopped and flavorful without being overwhelmed by spices; palak aloo, potatoes in a sauce of pureed spinach seasoned with cumin, ginger, and garlic; and, most striking of all, eggplant deva, sautéed slices layered with fennel-flavored tomato sauce and drizzled with garlic-ginger-infused yogurt. For dessert, we enjoyed a Nilgiri sundae, scoops of vanilla ice cream floating in a coffee bath and topped with pistachio-flecked whipped cream, a suitably rich finish to a vibrantly flavorful but not too heavy meal. With its emphasis on light, fresh cuisine, Bombay Cafe stands out in the crowd. Give it a try and be sure to peek into the open kitchen. The colors and aromas will make you glad to be there even before the first dish arrives.
On our first visit to Dhaba (2104 Main Street, in Santa Monica) we decided to go with two of the specials, Swiss chard with garlic, and mushrooms and peas in a light curry sauce. Both were wonderfully fresh and simple, the chard savory and slightly bitter, the mushrooms and peas subtly sweet. We ate the two entrées with onion naan, a deliciously crisp rendition, almost like matzo but tender on the inside. For an appetizer we chose samosas, which were smaller than usual but nice and crispy, filled with potatoes, peas, and carrots. One of us liked them without reservation; one of us thought the spice combination was a bit harsh. The green chutney that accompanied the samosas was better than average, a vibrant combination of mint and cilantro. In keeping with the spirit of the place, our mango lassis leaned more toward mango and less toward yogurt, which is to say they were both rich and refreshing. We left feeling light enough to fit in a scoop of ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s across the street. On our next visit, we plan to try some of the regular menu items and, if it’s warm enough, the charming patio.