Sometimes a restaurant makes such an impression that it changes your way of thinking about an entire cuisine. Southern Spice is just such a place. While we’ve been conditioned to think of South Indian cooking as one giant collection of dosas, iddlies, and utthampams, Southern Spice flings open the doors on a half-dozen regional micro-cuisines. “Much of the food comes from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu,” the kindly proprietor told us, answering a question posed by an artist at our table notorious for her depictions of dogs in human clothes. “But one of the cooks is from Delhi,” he continued, explaining the presence of some northern Indian specialties on the menu.
Southern Spice lies a block north of the Ganesh Temple, which is currently being rebuilt in south Flushing. The bare dining room is painted a striking shade of yellow, casting its glow on heavy mahogany furniture that might have come from a library’s reading room. Best of all, a big window looks into the kitchen. On our first visit, as we filed out of the restaurant after an incredible meal, one of the cooks, wearing a baseball cap, gave us a salute with two fingers, as a Cub Scout would do.
The first dish to slap us across the face was lamb sukka varuval ($11). It didn’t look like much—a collection of dark meat chunks and onion slivers mired in a sludge you could have scraped from your boot. A frond of cilantro rode on top like a jockey on a dark horse. One taste, and my head exploded. Ginger and garlic jumped out, then cardamom, curry leaf, and hot chilies. My crew and I ate the crunchy onions as eagerly as we ate the meat. The dish hails from Chettinad, 400 miles south of Chennai, where the spice combinations, known as masalas, often contain coriander, fenugreek seed, cinnamon, and (gasp!) star anise.
Next, we attacked pappu kooraku ($8), which appeared to be a simple salver of spinach, but turned out to have lentils and odiferous fresh fenugreek leaves mixed in. It, too, proved irresistible. Instead of pouring the purée over rice, we chose to scoop it up with Southern Spice’s garlic naans, which were unlike any we’d eaten before. The dirty secret of this puffy flatbread, so commonly available in Indian restaurants, is that it’s often made from commercial pizza dough. This naan was thinner, more profusely dotted with garlic and parsley, and bore no resemblance to pizza crust. Its thinness assisted us in using it as a scoop, and we happily continued eating the meal with our mitts.
And so it went: Dish after dish was astonishing in the power and immediacy of its flavors. Nilgiri mutton kuruma, a recipe associated with Tamil Nadu, sported a gravy almost as minty as toothpaste, a perfect foil to the coarse-textured meat. We’d had chicken Chettinad before, and usually found the name to be code for dumping extra chilies into a dull gravy. Here, the sauce was more subtle, with a chile kick that occurred well into the mastication of every bite, making us wonder: How did they defer the burn?
While we’d expected lots of coconut milk and fish (a characteristic of Keralan fare), these were a minor part of the menu’s magic. Nevertheless, varuthameen ($11) features a generous kingfish steak lolling in coconutty gravy. It wore a red-hot chile pepper on its breast, as an invitation and a warning. Even more compelling was a shark mash-up, flavored with ginger, black mustard seed, and curry leaves, that came in a cute little pot. I’d spread it on a sandwich any day of the week.
Southern Spice also features tandoori selections not associated with South India, which feature subtle flavor twists, and the luscious chicken tandoori—thankfully bereft of its artificial red coloration—is not to be ignored. There’s also a smattering of the wildly popular Sino-Indian fare, which has catapulted to prominence on local Indian menus in the past few years. Chicken 65 is a bright-red stir-fry of chicken tidbits that has become a popular bar snack in southern India.
One dish you must try is a dessert. Paruppu payasam ($3) looks like a soup, crammed with yellow raisins, vermicelli, and tapioca pearls, making it seem like bubble tea’s crazier cousin. One ingredient was faintly familiar, though we couldn’t quite put our finger on it. Once again, our host leaped to the rescue: “This sweet is usually made with pistachios,” he beamed, “but I’ve performed a little fusion and made it with pine nuts instead.” We reassured him, “The pine nuts taste like they belonged there all along.”