Jersey City’s Little India wasn’t nearly as impressive 10 years ago. Chowpatty anchored the neighborhood back then, the top dog in a modest pack of five restaurants. Named after a popular Mumbai beach, Chowpatty specialized in the vegetarian cooking of Gujarat, India’s impoverished westernmost state. In fact, a large proportion of the groceries, chat houses, and jewelry stores— ostentatiously displaying the gold necklaces that form an Indian bride’s dowry—catered to Gujaratis.
The ensuing years have been kind to the four blocks of Newark Avenue north of Journal Square. Little India has bloomed like a rosewater lassi, so that now the thoroughfare and surrounding streets form a South Asian business district more impressive than either Jackson Heights or Iselin, New Jersey. On weekend afternoons, the streets flood with shoppers, many in colorful saris, stocking up on cheap mangoes, dals, and such unusual vegetables as snake gourd, loofah, and tindoor.
Though Chowpatty is long gone, and with it much of the Gujarati presence, the neighborhood now boasts 15 restaurants of stunning diversity, including dosa huts, slightly upscale Punjabi joints, a meat-intensive Hyderabadi buffet, sweets palaces marshalling barfis and halwas in neat rows, an Indian pizza parlor offering incendiary fresh-jalapeño pies, and—most recent of all—a garish red-and-yellow walk-up window called 99 Cent Angethi Express that specializes in super-cheap carryout meals.
Nearly as new and twice as interesting is Udupi Shri Krishna Palace, named after a Hindu temple in Udupi, a holy city in India’s southwestern coastal state of Karnataka. The place has a fast-food feel to it, though dishes are cooked to order, which can take a half hour when the place is hopping. Booth seating comes nattily veneered in shades of purple and brown, and a window looks into the kitchen, where a talented cook works slowly and methodically. On a weekday evening, bachelors sit glumly waiting for their dinners as romantic Bollywood tunes burble softly in the background. Luckily, the diners are not glum because of what they’re about to eat, which is easily some of the best Indian food in the metropolitan region.
Udupi Palace would be worth visiting if only for the meat-bearing dishes from Karnataka and the surrounding states of southern India, a region often associated with vegetarian food. Goat, lamb, and chicken are featured—but no cow or pig, for obvious religious reasons. Sounding like really kinky porn, mutton sukka ($7.95) describes several fine large chunks of sheep cooked down to coarse chocolate sludge with coconut milk, like the best examples of beef rendang found in Indonesian restaurants. The sheep, however, is outdone by the goat achari: bone-in pieces of meat, almost full chops, lounging with swatches of lime-skin pickle in thick sauce. The taste is pungently acidic and the color is oily red. Note: Indian gravies are not considered done until oil oozes like the Exxon Valdez.
From Chettinad, a state east of Karnataka, comes chicken chettinadu ($6.95), sporting a tan-colored gravy shot with black pepper, a throwback to the days before chili peppers arrived in India in the 16th century. Those chilies came via the Portuguese, whose west-coast colony of Goa was responsible for the most notorious use of chilies in India: vindaloo. It was originally made with pork, which was possible because Goa was an island of Catholicism in a Hindu sea.
But the menu is not limited to historical oddities. In its quest to become the quintessential Indian diner, Udupi generates Southern Indian vegetarian standards and Northern Indian fare, too. In the first category, you’ll find a typical selection of eight dosas (crisp, vegetable-filled crepes),
which would be impressive if Sri Ganesha’s Dosa House weren’t a stone’s throw down the street, offering dosas by the dozens in a
carnival atmosphere. Rather, pick any of the utthampam ($4.25–$4.95), fluffy pancakes
made with a batter of ground rice and lentils.
Among Northern Indian choices, Mughal vegetarian favorites like alu gobi (potato and cauliflower, $5.95) are rendered in unfussier form than elsewhere, but why not go wild and order something from the separate Indo-Chinese menu? While the hakka noodles are just OK, the “chilli chicken” ($6.95) is right on the money—boneless nuggets hot from the tandoori oven rolled in green onions and chilies. The dish is so hot, an expression of concern might flash across your face. Hopefully, you won’t be mistaken for one of the glum bachelors.