On a sunny spring/summer/fall day in Manhattan, there are few pleasures that can match the joyous decompression of a picnic in the park… especially when that picnic is catered by a madly delicious vegan dosa food cart. Hidden in plain sight among the pretzel and hot dog venders of Washington Square Park, 2007 Vendy Award winning Thiru Kumar’s made-to-order dosas, idly, and uthappam are a spicy treat!
My first time here I was clearly a newbie, but being an educated newbie, I ordered the Jaffna Lunch — 4 small pancakes made with “natural herbs” topped with spicy dried chutney and served with a Samosa ($6). Why not the Pondicherry Dosa? Well, despite the excessive online praise for this dosa, when I saw the guy in front of me receive his, all I could think was that it looked like a salad in a crepe… and that wasn’t going to cut it , because I was HUNGRY!
My hunger was obviously satisfied by the ample portion of the Jaffna, but my taste buds were underwhelmed. The pancakes are moist but lack flavor beside the slight sourness, which would be fine if not matched with the equally bland dried coconut chutney. I asked for medium spicy, but tasted no heat at all. Apparently I look like I can’t handle spice, because I think no matter what you say Thiru picks the level of spiciness he thinks is appropriate for you.
The Jaffner Lunch included a Samosa, a flaky crust filled with spicy potatoes and peas with a sweet chutney ($1.75 of 2/$3) The samosa is “good” but I don’t understand all the raving it gets online. Then again, I also thought it was strange that my culinary adventurous friend had never even HAD a samosa before, maybe these online people are more excited by the concept –deep fried buttery dough wrapped around potatoes and peas– then this specific samosa. But a good samosa is a good samosa, and this is a good samosa (and its case is bolstered by the sweet and tart tamarind sauce it is served with).
Still avoiding the Pondicherry, on my next visit I ordered the Masala Dosa, a rice and lentil crepe filled with potatoes ($5). Crispy on one side, soft on the other, the made to order dosa was rather perfect. Mounds of spiced potatoes sit on the grill and are tossed into most of the dosas –including my Masala—they were both unspicy and cool. The dosa is served with sambar, a mild vegetable soup that tends towards the bland side… it’s sort of like minestrone without the noodles. A perfectly nice accompaniment on a brisk fall afternoon, but in the heat of the summer I usually toss it.
Along with my dosa, I ordered the Veggie Roll, a fried roll filled with different veggies ($1.75 of 2/$3). It is criminal that I don’t have a good photo of the Veggie Roll. What looks like an unassuming mozzarella stick is really a deep fried stick of crunchy and toothsome ecstasy! Like fallen tree, it rests in a pool of sweet chili sauce that I dipped everything in… like my fingers!
On my next visit, I finally ordered the mysterious Special Pondicherry, a crepe made of rice and lentils and filled with potatoes and veggies ($6). It’s exactly the same as the Masala but with the addition of fresh lettuce, jalapenos, bell pepper, and carrots… much like the salad I feared. But if given the choice between plain potatoes (Masala) and potatoes with fresh crunchy vegetables (Pondicherry), well, I too choose the less boring one; and this is why the Pondicherry is the best. Mystery solved!
With my infamous Pondicherry Dosa, I tried to order my beloved Veggie Roll, by Thiru was out… so I ordered the Vegan Drumstick instead. The drumstick is made of soy protein and served on a sugar cane stick ($1.75 of 2/$3). But exactly as I expected, they are just deep fried “Spiced Chicken Legs” from May-Wah which are “good,” but I can eat them at home. That’s not to say it isn’t fun to chew in that savory sweet sugar cane stick while walking through the park when you’re done.
When planning a trip down to the NY Dosas cart, always have a back up (like the nearby Kati Roll Co) because sometime he isn’t there. But when Thiru is there, no matter the weather, he always wears a smile. Don’t go if your time is tight, the line can be tedious and this food deserves to not be rushed. During busier times he has an assistant dealing with money, expediting orders, and offering general cheer. Most American will be slightly bewildered by the cutlery offering: a solitary spoon. But this is a meal meant to get your hands dirty! Afterwords you can wash up in Washington Square Park’s grand fountain, you know, for a truly international experience…
Southwest corner of Washington Square Park