Three blocks east of Flushing’s Main Street, Bowne Street seems a quiet thoroughfare of frame houses and trim apartment buildings. But a surprise is in store— a few blocks south of Franklin Avenue, the houses part to reveal the gray eminence of a Hindu temple with three ornate towers wrapped in sculpted figures dominated by the elephant-headed Ganesh. The middle tower is tethered to the ground with strings of tiny lights, as if it might float up to heaven on its own, and piles of shoes and abandoned baby carriages behind the fence testify to the throng inside. Their observances completed, occasional cheerful knots of Indians go right next door to Dosa Hutt, a strictly vegetarian three-table shoebox where four employees gyrate behind the counter frying, steaming, and bumping into each other like Keystone Kops. The 20-item menu features variations on the mainstay breakfast and lunch dishes of South India: dosa, uthappam, vada, and iddly.
Dosa are the heart of the menu, offered in eight types. The standard masala dosa ($2.50) is not particularly large, but the wrapper is crisp and well-browned, and the filling more complex than most, featuring dahl and cashews tossed with a potato mixture accented with cumin, onions, and curry leaves. Since some Indians don’t eat onions for religious reasons, the menu carefully delineates which dishes contain them and which do not. The dosa wrapper, however, is the star of the show. As our party downed dosa after dosa, which we agreed were the best in town, we realized what distinguishes the wrapper from inferior versions: it’s made from scratch on the premises, rather than with the packaged mix used most places. The time-consuming fabrication involves soaking raw rice, grinding it with water, adding lentil flour, and allowing the mixture to ferment for 24 hours, producing bubbles for leavening that obviate the need for the baking soda found in the mixes.
The best is the “special butter masala dosa” ($3), so drenched in ghee that you can smell its nutty fragrance across the room as the cook flings the plate on the high counter and yells at you to pick it up. The staff is pleasantly surly to everyone, and customers don’t hesitate to complain about details. Nearly every dish is served with a cup of homemade chutney obviously made with fresh coconut, and recently, too. The sambar— a thin dahl soup for dipping and drinking— is admirably functional compared with versions I’ve had other places, where they try to wow you with tons of chunked vegetables.
The only other main-course category is uthappam, fermented lentil-flour pancakes dotted with vegetables and priced from $2 to $3.50. Swelteringly hot slices of thin green chile are fried into the pancake. But if the merely incendiary is not good enough for you, go for the “hot pepper and peas uthappam,” loaded with so many chiles that I dare you to eat more than half of it. The mixed vegetable uthappam has enough of these chiles already, in addition to tomato and scallions— a dodge that makes it possible for the nononion-eating Jains and Brahmans to down them.
The iddly are also the best in town, and at $1.50 for two of these spongy flying saucers, you could go on a substantial iddly binge for less than $5. Which is exactly what I intend to do on my next visit.