Five years ago, Jersey City’s Little India was limited to a three-block stretch of Newark Avenue just north of Journal Square, catering mainly to immigrants from Bombay and Gujarat. Now the area is burgeoning, spilling sideways onto Van Winkle Street and knifing into the Filipino nabe to the east. On weekends the streets are thronged with shoppers, many in colorful traditional dress, and the number of restaurants has zoomed from three to over a dozen. Sadly, Gujarati anchor restaurant Chowpatty vanished overnight. On the positive side of the ledger, we have a broader range of regional fare than ever before.
It was always possible to get a good dosa in Jersey City. But 30 different dosas? That’s the astonishing number available at the new Dosa Hut, not to be confused with Flushing’s sainted Dosa Hutt, or the various single-T imitators that have sprung up in Queens and Manhattan. The Jersey Hut is an estimable institution unto itself, a spare boxy room with relentlessly yellow walls, entered via a shrine to Ganesh, strewn with offerings of tea, fruit, and small coins. Inside, a cashier barks orders through a window that looks into the cacophonous kitchen, where the order is passed on by shouts from cook to cook. Prior to ordering, you must select a table for delivery, designated by a number hoisted on a tall metal wand. Innovatively, the nourishing lentil soup called sambar is pooled in a receptacle at the side of the room, allowing you to fill and refill your Styrofoam cup. On one visit, the harried assistant manager tried to deliver a new cauldron through the crowded room, and tripped on a shopping bag. Brown soup flooded the room, causing diners to leap back as if the Ganges was overflowing its banks.
The dosa, of course, is a French-inspired crepe made from a batter of ground-up rice and yellow split peas that’s allowed to ferment before being poured onto a griddle to make thin, crisp pancakes. Though sometimes served alone ($3.50), dosas are more often rolled around a filling of potatoes and cashews flavored with black mustard seed, onions, and curry leaves. But now that the day of the dosa has arrived, Indian restaurateurs are scurrying to stuff their dosas with all sorts of other vegetarian fillings. A Velveeta-like cheese is used to advantage in cheese rava plain dosa ($7.50), which flaunts a lacier and crisper pancake than the regular dosa. Folded into an impromptu pyramid, it one-ups the toasted cheese sandwich.
Named after France’s coastal Indian colony, Pondicherry dosa ($5.50) is maybe intended to scare away the French, since it’s laden with fresh green chiles and raw onions. Other unusual fillings include palak (spinach), chutney, and the fresh cheese called paneer. Dosa-like pesarattu ($5) incorporates ground mung beans and cilantro into the batter, making for a gritty green pancake. It’s so Dr. Seuss. But the utility of Dosa Hut lies not only in dosas, but in other South Indian snacks as well. Upma was a favorite on a repeat visit, like cream of wheat cooked with peanuts and South Indian seasonings. Curd rice was another, a rich sour rice pudding. But king of the snacks is the spongy dumpling called iddly. In one treatment, it’s quartered, fried deep brown, and served with chunky coconut chutney. It might be Jersey City’s unique contribution to world cuisine.