“Namaste: (na.ma.stay) Indian salutation via Hindu from Sanskrit. ‘I bow to you.’”
— Collins Dictionary.
At Namaste Spiceland, the well-stocked shelves of spices, condiments, fresh produce and diverse range of dry, canned and frozen food products imported from India are literally only half the story. Why bother shopping for groceries when you can simply step up to the steam table counter or the bakery display case and indulge in some of the best — and most reasonably priced — South Indian food in town. And it’s entirely vegetarian.
This last fact has garnered a fairly eclectic but reliably faithful bunch of lunch and dinner regulars to the store. Two such customers, Zoe Seaborn and her vivacious and aptly named companion Sensational Unique testified to their enthusiasm. As Ms. Unique explained, “A year ago, we came here for spices. I’m vegan. I was looking for herbs. We tried the food and we were in love!”
Most folks are naturally drawn to the aromas wafting over the steaming trays at the counter. These options are changed and refreshed daily and are offered in a choice of three combination plates. The first priced at $7.95 for two entrees, basmati rice, chapati and pickle, the second adds a fresh samosa stuffed with potato and peas at $8.95. The largest combo plate at $10.95 includes three entrée choices plus the samosa, rice, chapatti and pickle. On a recent visit the hot entrée items included: Chana Masala (sauced chickpeas); Lauki (squash and peas); Aloo Pyazz (potatoes and onions); Saag (spinach and mustard greens); Daal (sauced lentils); and a choice of tomato rice or plain basmati.
Don’t forget to peruse the bakery case, which is stocked with fresh pastries and desserts prepared at the original Namaste Spiceland outpost in Thousand Oaks. Another case features imported ice cream novelties and another has Indian sodas and beverages. Fresh, hot chai tea is always a staple behind the counter as well.
The combo plates are fresh, delicious, generously portioned and easy to order: what you see is what get. However, you are missing the real fun here if you ignore the overhead menu list of “South Indian Specialties” and particularly the list of “Chaat.” Under the former rubric are a selection of dosas, idili and uttapam. Dosas are long crisped rolled crepes stuffed with different varieties of well-seasoned vegetables. Idili are small savory fluffy cakes made from fermented black lentils and rice flour served with a lentil sambhar stew. Uttapam are slightly thick pancake rounds topped with a variety of well-spiced toppings. These dishes are specific to southern Indian provinces and are unlikely to be found on the menus of more conventional Indian restaurants in the area.
But can we chaat? Sitting down over a cup of chai tea with one of the store’s managing partners — a humbly affable gentleman known simply as Harsh — we review the menu’s offering of chaat, the term used for street food snacks found commonly throughout most of India.
Chaat dishes typically comprise a mix of ingredients that play ingeniously on texture and spice.
Sour, sweet, spicy, cold, hot, soft and crunchy all at the same time, most chaat dishes offer a seductive mélange of sensory satisfactions in a single bite. Though the names of some dishes vary a bit by region, there is a more or less standard list of snack options that can be found throughout the subcontinent. Most chaat is composed of a few basic components: a crunchy carb base of fried rice crackers, puffed rice, or chopped samosa for instance. Yogurt pools around the base on some dishes. A vegetable topping of diced potatoes, tomatoes, and onions often sauced with mint or tamarind chutney comes next. Additional crunch is provided with slivers of fried potato or chickpeas. Usually a dash of chaat masala seasoning finishes the concoction. At Namaste Spiceland, the Pani Puri (known as Gol Gappa in northern India) are small crisped orbs of rice flour accompanied with flavored water and a mince of onions, tomatoes and potatoes. The Papdi Chaat is composed of rice crackers lightly covered with yogurt, the vegetable mince and chopped, fried chickpeas. The menu features ten variations of chaat and all are worthy of exploration.
Pro-tip: Resist the call of the steam table entrée combo plates and simply ask any of the friendly folks behind the counter about the compositions of the chaat snacks or for their personal recommendations on the south Indian specialties. Regardless of your choices, all of the food here is fresh and flavor-forward. There is a subtle but insistent baseline of spice to all of the dishes which speaks to the mindful skill and attention of the chefs in the kitchen.
Just last week, the influential foodie newsletter Eater LA listed the “21 Essential Asian Restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.” Topping the list, along with the expected Szechuan noodle and Cantonese dim sum spots was Bhanu’s Indian Grocery & Cuisine on Rosemead Boulevard in San Gabriel. Before Namaste Spiceland arrived in the neighborhood, Bhanu’s was the only game in town for Indian groceries and comestibles. With an expanded menu that includes lamb, chicken and seafood entrees and more conventional Tandoori and Biryani dishes, Bhanu’s is also a reliably stalwart fixture on the landscape… if you’re a carnivore.
For fresh plant-based South Indian cuisine, snacks and pastries — at remarkably reasonable price-points — you might consider skipping the trek down the 210 and head over to Namaste Spiceland. Stock up on ghee and incense while you’re at it… Namaste indeed!