CORAL SPRINGS, FL – A sign of a good ethnic restaurant is one that, with its cuisine and atmosphere, can instantly transport you from your native surroundings to a different place.
Ethnic restaurants in South Florida rarely can do that because many have become highly Americanized. Many serve food tamed for a domestic audience that cannot tolerate the spicing or pungency enjoyed by immigrants raised on their native cuisines.
One of the cuisines that I feel has been subject to heavy Westernization in the United States is Indian food.
When we encounter Indian cuisine in the US, especially in South Florida, it is often a modified style of North Indian (Mughlai & Punjabi) food introduced in the UK during the 1950s. This is typically prepared with heavy yogurt and butter-based sauces, accompanied by bread and roasted, marinated meats cooked in Tandoor ovens. Some of it can be very good, but the dishes tend to be boilerplate and often without much creative variation.
Southern India’s cuisine isn’t as typical in South Florida. It is also overwhelmingly vegetarian because of the region’s predominantly Hindu population and tends to be a lot more piquant given the variety of spices used and the increased use of chiles.
Another cuisine we do not see frequently is Indo-Chinese, which is Chinese food that has been adapted to Indian palates with local spices and ingredients. It originated in Kolkata (previously Calcutta), in Eastern India during the 18th century, and is now served all over the country.
When I find restaurants serving these cuisines, I get very excited because it’s rare here. So I immediately jumped at the opportunity when I heard that Honest Indian Vegetarian had opened a branch of its international chain here in Coral Springs.
Honest Indian is a fast-casual concept serving vegetarian cuisine. If you don’t like vegetarian food because you think it is uninteresting or uninventive, I can assure you nothing is boring about this cuisine. And the environment is so legitimately Indian that you will feel you have been transported to somewhere else.
The interior is clean but set up like a fast-food establishment, with brightly colored pop-art paintings of Bollywood stars adorning its red walls. Several items on its menu are named after popular films in India.
The menu is composed of a wide variety of vegetarian dishes representative of the entire subcontinent — vegetable curries, accompanied by fluffy rolls (Pav), rice dishes, Indian-style pizzas, vegetable jam and chutney sandwiches, mixed vegetarian platters (Thali), Bombay-style snack mixes (Chaat), South Indian crepes and pancakes (Dosas, Uttapam, Idli), Indo-Chinese dishes (soups, stir-fries, noodles, fried rice), and fritters (Wada, Samosa, Pakora).
Most of the items incorporate dairy but can be made vegan on request. The normal spice level would be considered quite spicy by most Americans, but it can be ordered milder or spicier to taste. The restaurant also has spicy green cilantro and red hot sauces to kick up your food even further.
It could take you a very long time to work through the entire menu as a single diner. But we had to make a few choices, as there were four of us for lunch.
We started with the Bhaji Pav with Cheese, a spicy vegetable curry topped with a mild grated cheese served with soft rolls. This is a dish that originates from the western peninsular state of Maharastra. I felt this dish resembled an American-style chili, but with a different and much more complex spice profile. It had a warm, building heat level, and went nicely with the soft rolls for dipping.
Next, we had a Mysore Masala Dhosa — a giant wrapped, crispy South Indian crepe made with flour composed of ground rice and black lentils (Urad Dal), filled with a spicy mixture of mashed potatoes, onions, and hot chutney. It comes with coconut and tomato chutneys on the side and a tangy and spicy tamarind lentil soup (Sambhar). You’ll need to pull this apart with your hands and redistribute the filling in small bites, dipping it into the soup and topping it with chutneys.
Our third dish may have been our favorite, Manchurian with Gravy — an Indo-Chinese specialty of mixed vegetable fried dumplings in a cornstarch-thickened soy sauce gravy with onion, garlic, ginger, and Indian spices. We had these over steamed basmati rice to absorb the savory gravy. It’s nothing like American-Chinese food, and I highly recommend it.
If you want to cool down from the spices, the restaurant offers Mango Lassi, a yogurt-based fruit shake, Falooda, another type of blended drink incorporating noodles, with your choice of fruit, as well as Limca, a popular lime-flavored Indian soft drink. They also have fruit juices and iced coffees mixed with ice cream available.
Honest Indian is at 2238 N. University Drive in Coral Springs.
Jason Perlow is a Coral Springs-based food reviewer. He runs the Foodies Who Review South Florida group on Facebook.
Read his other reviews for TAPinto Coral Springs:
Review: Wine Brunch, Anyone? Swirl Near Coral Springs Is Quirky, Hidden International Feast
Ice Cream is a Mexican-American Dream at Cieladito’s in Coral Springs
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