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All three can be found at Raja's, a tiny zero-atmosphere mom-and-pop Indian luncheonette that has actually been downtown for twelve years, but has not been easy to find due to a former location inside its building complex. Raja's now has a storefront on the street, but still "is better known to tourists. To local people we are mostly a secret," according to Raja himself.
There are many other items at Raja's -- approximately a dozen dishes daily. Some are familiar North Indian stuff like chicken and lamb curries, others rarer dishes I've seldom encountered outside of South Indian homes: rich hard-boiled-egg curry; a simple but very sautéed spiced cabbage with lentils and peas. All the above that I've ever tried were tasty, fast (since they're steam-tabled), and cheap -- from $2.99 for a single-item plate to $4.69 for a huge, heaping thali (a plate of two or three items plus rice pilau). But the pancake items are well worth the twenty-minute wait, especially if you pass the time with a glass of Raja's homemade mango lassi, a refreshing blend of crushed mangoes and yogurt that puts every health-food "smoothie" on the planet to shame.
The Kandaswamy family is from a town south of Madras, Tiruchchirappalli -- and if you think pronouncing that is hard, just try making dosai, uttapam, or idli. Actually, do not. These items may sound simple, being little more than pancakes or fritters made from variations on the same dough of ground-up rice and urad dhal, a lentil relative that ferments like a superfast yeast, giving all three dishes a soft sourness that perfectly plays off the sweetness, heat, or saltiness of accompanying chutneys and sambals. In South India, they're as common a breakfast item as toast is here. But the long, labor-intensive process of soaking, drying, grinding, fermenting, forming, and cooking the ingredients is definitely not something one starts when the alarm clock goes off. Or ever. It takes hours, even days, and is best left to trained professionals.
Dosai, the most delicate of the three dishes, are light, lacy, almost paper-thin crêpes made by thinning the rice/dhal dough to a batter and cooking them on a flat griddle (or, traditionally, a special dosa stone). They can be served flat like an ordinary pancake, but usually they're folded omeletlike around a vegetable filling. Raja's filling was buttery, beautifully spiced mashed potatoes; the golden brown dosa itself was so big it hung off both ends of the plate. A single stuffed crêpe ($4.35) was a meal.
Uttapam ($4.75 each), slightly thicker and spongy in the middle with a lacy crisp border, were just as large and just as good. Raja's serves these pancakes flat, topped with peas, onions, or slices of fresh chili peppers that are partly cooked in. The chili version will conquer any cold, clear any stuffed nose, in about three seconds flat. The milder onion version was nevertheless so succulent I could barely bring myself to share it with my very best friends.
Idli ($3.75), made of the least diluted dough, are more like patties. They're steamed, not cooked in a griddle or pan, so no oil. They're also plain -- no filling, no topping. But the same fermented sourness makes these fat springy cakes, somewhat polentalike in texture but lighter, ideal for dipping in either of the accompaniments Raja's includes: a pleasantly spicy unsweetened coconut chutney, and a pleasantly salty sambar (often just a thin lentil purée, but at Raja's a more complex preparation incorporating eggplant and several other veggies).