For those in San Francisco with an addiction to South Indian snacks — dosas, idly, uthappam — the opening of Udupi Palace in the Mission a couple weeks ago signifies a dangerous development.
Unlike its stylishdinner-house neighbor Dosa, Udupi serves nonstop all day and keeps everything cheap, at $7 or less.
So, there is no reason not to drop in for just one ravishing onion rava dosa — a crisp, lacy, crepe-like, cream-of-wheat pancake with toasted onions ($7.95) — which alone would be fine, except that you might feel compelled to order another dish you saw on the next table, and then you’re sunk. I’ve spent whole afternoons greedily tearing off pieces of huge, crisp pancakes, dipping them into lentil stew (sambar) and chutneys, and stuffing them into my mouth as fast as I can.
Lest you think I’m the only one who has this problem, check out the queue in front of Udupi at a long-extended dinner hour; or the late afternoon rush of postnatal yoga moms with SUV-sized strollers; or the tables of North and South Indians.
The dosa and its derivatives are based on a single batter, a mixture of ground rice, lentils and water that ferments overnight. The batter is steamed, or cooked on a griddle, to create very different dishes.
What makes these South Indian snacks so devilishly irresistible? Cooks have been working on them since the sixth century.
In the appetizer section, go for fried idly ($4.75). The basic batter is steamed into dumplings, then deep fried to create pure crunch. Topped with spice-rubbed chopped onion and cilantro, they come with Udupi’s three workhorse chutneys: ivory colored dried coconut with mustard seed; creamy pink tomato and dried chile that lends tobacco-y heat; and an unconventional fruity green cilantro, whose makeup I have yet to decipher.
Additionally, have dhai vada ($4.75), a deep-fried ground lentil doughnut seasoned with toasted mustard seed, then smothered in yogurt mixed with sweet/tart tamarind chutney and green chutney. You eat this luscious thing with a spoon.
My favorite in the dosa department is the outlandish paper dosa ($7.95), folded into a megaphone as long as the table. Break off pieces of this super-crisp, delicately sour pancake, soak them in sambar and dip them in the three chutneys. How can anything so big disappear so fast?
Of the uthappams, try the spectacular spicy Gobi chettinad uthappam ($6.95), a thick, moist pancake of the same batter, excitingly mixed with spicy cauliflower flowerettes, onion and spicy paste. Dunk and dip as above.
To fill out a meal, consider special vegetable curry ($8.95), a variety of soft vegetables in a dark, spicy, creamy sauce. Use the puffy wheat bread to scoop it up.
A silver bowl of baga bhath ($6.95), refreshing yogurt rice garnished with bits of cucumber and lovingly topped with three different fried dried chiles, is something you would make at home to eat in front of the television on Sunday (“Mad Men”) night.
Service by a slightly disorganized team of nice waiters in burgundy Udupi-monogrammed polo shirts can be slow, especially if one of those pushed together tables of 14 has slipped in just before you. No matter.
This miraculous, affordable, soul-satisfying South Indian cooking that somehow sits lightly even though you’ve eaten like a hod carrier, is worth any inconvenience. Remember to bring cash.
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 1007 Valencia St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 970-8000, www.udupipalaceca.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Price range: $4.75 for appetizers to $11.95 for a thali
Recommended dishes: Special rava dosa, Gobi chettinad uthappam, fried idli, special vegetable curry, paper dosa, dhai vada
Credit cards: Not accepted; cash only