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Spicy Staples

Bhavika's Food to Go
In the Stew: A customer favorite, bhel puri mixes potatoes and rice with sweet-and-sour flavors.

Indian food that's cheap, fast and filling

By Andrew X. Pham

FAST-FOOD JOINTS representing just about every part of the world sprout on El Camino Real's concrete like wild grass. One of the lesser known is Bhavika, a pint-size dive shouldered amid a topless bar, a convenience store and an Indian fabric shop. Too crumbly around the edges to be called quaint, it nonetheless yields opportunities for the culinarily curious. Food is served on paper plates; utensils are plastic. The menu, a yellowing wall poster, enumerates a sizable list of appetizers, snacks and sweets: all vegetarian, many sold by the pound. Folding tables and stacking chairs provide one of the most cramped dining experiences anywhere. A shower curtain sections off the kitchen from the dining room, which is a five-table affair.

Ariz, a regular patron, gushes over a bowl of dal: "It is just like what I used to eat in my village. This is Indian fast-food. Cheap and filling."

For appetizers, the kachori beats the samosa (each 50 cents apiece) hands down. The winner is a blistered ball of batter hosting a core of chopped nuts, seeds, onion and vegetables. The runner-up samosa, also a deep-fried treat, suffers from a heavy oil coating.

A big favorite of the dine-in crowd, bhel puri ($2, serves two) stands in as the Indian equivalent of American potato salad. Sitting plainly on a paper plate, this combination of curried mashed potatoes and puffed rice carries a unique but likable sweet-and-sour flavor bonded with cilantro, raw onions and bits of sweet fried dough.

Lunch ($2 and $2.50) and dinner ($3 and $3.50) leave the customer with two choices: roti or paratha. Both unleavened breads are cousins of the Mexican tortilla, with the roti bearing the look of corn tortillas and the paratha seeming more akin to flour tortillas except for the herbs embedded in the dough. These breads accompany dal and sabji, both served in half-pint Styrofoam bowls. The dal here can be described simply as curried vegetarian chili, salty and very spicy. The sabji, also super-spiced, is a filling potato and stringbean stew. The true way to eat sabji is to pour the stew (about several spoonfuls) over half of the bread. Using the right hand, tear off a piece of bread, dip into the stew and eat. Pour more stew as needed. Be forewarned that eating with fingers can be addictive.

Bhavika's Food to Go, 1053 E. El Camino Real, #8, Sunnyvale, 408/243-2118. Open Tue.­Sun. 10am­8pm; closed Mon.

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From the May 15-21, 1997 issue of Metro

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