For many Americans, Indian cuisine equates to home-cooked London-style curries, with rich, creamy, and often mild curries and screaming red tandoori meats.
Increasingly, the offerings became more diverse, following an influx of immigrants from the southern states of India. Several examples of this new wave of South Indian restaurants have clustered in the western suburbs of Portland.
Here are some favorites from our recent travels:
Chennai Massala (2088 NE Stucki Ave., Hillsboro, 503-531-9500, chennaimasala.net) has been a South Indian standard for over a decade and a half. After the dining room was renovated several years ago, it took on the look of a mid-range restaurant, shedding the cafeteria vibe of its former incarnation and many other local Indian spots. South Indian cuisine is heavily vegetarian, so order accordingly. We suggest one of the dosas, a crispy rolled pancake made from fermented lentil and rice flours. Good plain with just a side of aromatic sambar or filled with potatoes, chutney, egg, cheese, meat and more ($10-$17).
Chettinad (14125 SW Walker Road, Beaverton, 503-746-4512, chettinadbeaverton.com), at the northeast end of Nike’s campus, has been smashing box office lately with its unashamedly spicy, multi-layered curries, among other savory delicacies. Take a cozy stand along the windows and try the Chettinad Lamb Curry ($15.99), plenty of tender boneless meat with lots of onion, curry leaf, cardamom and cinnamon accents. Novices should not venture beyond average heat. Another not to be missed: one of the biryanis ($12.99-$15.99), a large dish of turmeric-tinged rice, and an abundance of meat choices for two. The char-kissed and chewy buttery naan ($2.99) is also best in class. Another tip: they like to keep the thermostat down here. Dress accordingly.
As indicated by his name, Apna Cat Bhavan (1815 NW 169th Place, Suite 6020, Beaverton, 503-718-7841, apnachatbhavan.com) specializes in chaat, a category of dishes, including many snacks, with crunchy, salty and starchy ingredients. Chaat originated in Uttar Pradesh, home state of Agra and the Taj Mahal, but has become ubiquitous throughout India. And why not? Our favorite chaat at Apna is the bhel puri ($5.99), a plate of puffed rice salad, with chickpeas, mint, potatoes, lentil crackers, onion and more , lightly coated with a tamarind mint chutney vinaigrette. Another highlight is the medu vada ($5.99 for four), a deep-fried savory donut made from fermented lentil flour punctuated with aromatic spices and served with a big, tangy sambar not radically different from ratatouille. They are crispy and non-greasy on the outside, soft and fragrant on the inside. Apna is a large, airy space, with a relaxing cinema room with two big-screen TVs, plenty of seating, and kids. It also shares real estate with a marketplace selling Indian staples and more.
In the Tanasbourne neighborhood of Hillsboro, Corner Biryani (1889 NE 106th Ave., Hillsboro, 503-747-4770, biryanicorner.net) is a full-service restaurant in a mall with a long menu dominated by South Indian specialties. It may lack the flair of Chettinad, but the best dishes come from the Indian region of Andhra, famous for its spicy dishes. For a hot moment, try the Rayalaseema Chicken Vepudu ($15), chicken sautéed in a “dry” curry in minimal sauce with lots of green chili and aromatic spices. Another winner is the Andhra Chicken Curry ($15.50), made with tomato and coconut milk. Here, the red peppers turbocharge the dish, to the delight of the mastiffs. For those looking for more familiar flavors in a budget package, there’s a family-sized biryani ($25-$36), with a variety of meat, seafood, and vegetarian options, that can easily feed four people. .
Desi Dicks (16165 SW Regatta Lane, #300, Beaverton, 971-371-2176, desibitespdx.com), another location near the Nike campus, is one of the newer South Asian markets in the area with a full restaurant menu. Be careful though, the dining room is tiny (while the store is huge) and it fills up quickly. Provide take-out meals, at least in case of an emergency. Don’t be afraid to try the Telangana curry made with tomato and coconut ($13.99 for chicken, $15.99 for goat), a specialty of Hyderabad. For a more traditional meal, try kati rolls ($9.99-$12.75), curries ($10.99-$15.99) or kebabs ($12.75-$17.25) wrapped in paratha bread, which are messy but delicious.
Indian sweets and spices (16205 NW Bethany Court, #110, Beaverton, 503-690-0499, indiasweetandspices.com) is yet another market with cafeteria style restaurants and a few tables. Dormant for much of the pandemic, it has fully reopened lately, serving a meatless menu that includes a rotating selection of four or five curries each day as well as dal, naan, rice and samosas. But the real draw here is the deli case full of traditional Indian sweets. Of course, there’s the gulab jamun ($2.99 for two), the ubiquitous sugar syrup-soaked donut holes. But he also makes laddoo, burfi, milk cake and other lesser-known Indian sweets. These are often flavored with nuts, cardamom or rose water. Most are unfamiliar to Western palates, and the textures and sometimes intense sweetness can be challenging. Curious newbies will want to pick up a plate of mixed candy ($12.99 a pound) to find their sweet spot.