San Francisco’s Indian restaurants are selling lighter and tangier dishes from the lower half of the subcontinent.
Coconut flavors and seafood reign. Chicken tikka masala is outre.
There’s a “vast sphere of Indian cuisine beyond the idea of curry,” says Niloufer King, author of “My Bombay Kitchen.”
A Mumbai native, she has lived in the Bay area for more than three decades. “This openness to regional cuisines could be part of the growing trend towards micro-specialization.”
The variety of Indian food in San Francisco now trumps even that in the South Bay, home to Silicon Valley’s large Indian population.
For surf-and-turf options in the city, start in the Mission District.
Dosa is the best spot for a broad sampling of unfamiliar Indian food. Both branches offer a tasting menu, while the regular menu includes explainers and suggestions such as eating with hands and ordering family-style. It’s one of only two Indian places on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants.
The namesake signature dish is a rolled-up crispy rice and lentil crepe. The staple masala dosa ($11), served with spiced potatoes and a trio of chutneys, is great for lunch.
Truffle oil dosa seems to go hand in hand with the nightclub-style decor and obligatory Bollywood music. Wash it down with the spicy Bloody Mary ’Curry’ ($8.50).
For dinner, the Chennai chicken appetizer ($10) almost demands a drink, perhaps a Bengali gimlet ($10). Follow with mango prawns ($17) and fish moilee ($29).
Dosa is at 995 Valencia St. and 1700 Fillmore St. Information: +1-415-642-3672, +1-415-441-3672; http://www.dosasf.com.
Udupi Palace is the no-frills alternative to Dosa, and that’s its charm. The vegetarian menu harks back to the quick-serve restaurants all over India that trace their roots to Karnataka state’s Udupi region. Duck in for a combination meal ($11.95) of a vada, a donut-sized lentil dumpling; an idli, a steamed rice cake; and a dosa. Or snack on uthapam, a savory rice and lentil pancake ($7.95 and up).
Udupi Palace is at 1007 Valencia St. Information: +1-415-970-8000; http://www.udupipalaceonvalencia.com.
Gajalee serves cuisine of the Konkan coast, which includes parts of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. It isn’t affiliated with the namesake chain in Mumbai but took me back home.
Start with calamari tossed with curry leaf ($7) and move on to the whole, semolina-crusted pompano stuffed with spices and pan fried ($17). Scoop up the Malvani fish masala ($13), which gets its name from a town 300 miles (about 500 km) south of Mumbai, with kombdivade, puffy bread made with rice and chickpea flour. If you’re eating alone get the fish thali, a substantial platter with vegetables, rice, bread and dessert ($17).
Wash everything down with sol kadhi ($3), a drink traditionally made with kokum, a cousin of tamarind. Considered a digestive, it has a unique sweet-and-sour flavor.
Gajalee is at 525 Valencia St. Information: +1-415-552-9000.
Viva Goa specializes in food of the former colony of Portugal, the country instrumental in bringing the chili pepper to India. The Portuguese influence stands out in the popular vindaloos ($9.99 and up) and in the lesser-known sorpotel ($12.99) -- a curried dish of pork meat, liver and fat with a vinegar tang.
Don’t miss sour-and-spicy Goa fish curry ($11.99) and the xacutti ($11.99), a curry made with coconut and poppy seeds. Indulge in bebinca ($3.99), a multilayered cake made with coconut milk.
Viva Goa is at 2420 Lombard St. Information: +1-415-440-2600; http://www.vivagoaindiancuisine.com.
Ruchi brings dishes native to Andhra Pradesh state, along with an amalgam of South Indian cuisine. Pesarattu ($8) is a great choice for an early lunch, a heartier version of a dosa.
For dinner, pair thick kal dosa ($8) with Nellore fish curry ($12), which has a hint of tamarind and originates from the namesake city near the Bay of Bengal. Don’t miss Ruchi’s take on the Hyderabadi biryani ($12), traditionally made by cooking marinated meat and rice together.
Ruchi is at 474 3rd St. Information: +1-415-392-8353; http://www.ruchisf.com.
(Vivek Shankar is an editor for Bloomberg News in San Francisco. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Philip Boroff on tennis and Mark Beech on pop music.