Udipi Café

By | October 24, 2006

Udipi Café
4141 Old William Penn Hwy
Monroeville, 15146
Sun-M, W-Th: 11:30-9:30; F-Sat: 11:30-10 (closed Tu)

I know I have said this a zillion times, and you are probably getting sick of it, but we are blessed, blessed I tell you! to have so many darned Indian restaurants here.  In fact, Pittsburgh is more than blessed because we’ve got two kinds of Indian cuisine: North and South!  Most of the restaurants around here, and generally in America, specialize in Northern Indian food.  This is your meat/veggies-in-sauce-on-rice variety of Indian, including your vindaloos and curries, your dahl and also your grilled tandoori.  Southern Indian food is a whole different beast, with fabulous dosai, uthappam, and sometimes so many little side dishes that it almost rivals Korean.  And it’s absolutely delicious.  Udipi is one of the only Indian restaurants in the Pittsburgh area that focuses mainly on this cuisine, and boy do they do it well.  Strap on your seat belts everyone – we’re going for a mouth-watering ride to coast of India!

For most Pittsburghers, Udipi wouldn’t be considered ‘close’ or ‘easy-to-get-to’, but that is just because it is in Monroeville, where it is confusing as all get out.  Here’s what you do: get off 376 at the main Monroeville exit, take that very first left at that light you always get stuck at with the blinking strobe, then make an immediate right onto what seems to go into a residential neighborhood (you may have returned a cable box in that vicinity at one time).  Drive until you start to panic that you’ve passed it, then take a deep breath and keep going.  After passing a sign for the Temple you’ll panic again, but just keep driving.  Then the road will seem to maybe fork, with your options being left up a hill and straight-ish through a mysterious tunnel.  Take the tunnel, take the tunnel!  Eventually on the left you’ll see what might appear to be a mechanic’s garage (because that is what it used to be) but it is way too well-lit and full of people to be one.  That’s it!  That’s Udipi!  Pull in and grab a parking spot – you’re there!

Now that you’re there, you’ll find that Udipi is a really casual place.  It is where big families meet, and it is near the Temple so it can get quite busy after services let out.  You eat with plastic flatware, help yourself to napkins on the table, and serve yourself water from a pitcher.  Udipi is vaguely diner-y that way, but with fewer decorations on the wall.  The menu is chock-full of items, including a section of the aforementioned Northern Indian stuff-in-sauce-on-rice.  If you know what’s good for ya, you’ll skip this part.  It isn’t that it is bad – no, not at all.  It is just that their specialty is the rest of the menu and that’s what you’re there for, right?

For the novice or tentative Udipi goer I recommend the following as a first-visit dinner-itinerary: mango lassi, Dhai Vada, and Masala Dosai.  What the hell are all those things?  Well, a mango lassi is like a sweet, tart, mango flavored milkshake made with yogurt.  Lassis are actually available at almost all Indian restaurants, North or South, but since Udipi makes their own amazing yogurt their mango lassis are especially good.  They are great, in fact – the kind of great that is deeply satisfying; the kind where you start getting really sad as you near your last few sips because soon it will all be over and your tongue will be all alone again, without the taste of a mango lassi to keep it company.  I get so bummed sometimes, but it never lasts long because soon my appetizer will arrive: Dhai Vada!  I just love that lentil doughnut soaked in homemade, tangy yogurt!  It gets in all the little nooks and crannies, and man, is it savor-licious!  MMM!  The doughnuts can also be ordered naked, or with a spicy soup called Sambar.  Both of these iterations are good, but I think the yogurt is the best for a first-timer (and also my personal favorite).

Now comes the main dish: Masala Dosai!  Dosai are giant, thin, and crispy crepe-like entities.  There are many varieties (the long list of them in the menu can be taken as evidence), most of which are made with fermented lentils and rice, and they are generally pretty healthful as they are made with very little fat.  They make them ultra-thin, embedded with fresh chiles, slathered with butter, made with wheat, rolled into tubes, folded into triangles, and filled with stuff.  The afore-recommended Masala Dosai is filled with a non-spicy potato-pea mixture, rolled into a big tube, and served with the spicy Sambar soup and luscious coconut chutney.  Just rip it up and eat it with your hands!  If you know you like it spicier, you can order the Mysore Masala Dosai, which is the same as above but with chile chutney on the inside, or the Special Rava Masala Dosai with chiles and onions grilled into the crepe.  The Paper Dosai is as thin as a sheet of paper, and the Butter Masala Dosai is – you guessed it – fried in butter.  MMM – they are all really good!  And in case I didn’t make it clear yet, these are GIANT – as in off-the-plate giant!

There are other delicious and uniquely southern Indian dishes on the menu too.  The uthappam here is like a thick lentil pancake that can be quite spicy and comes plain or with various things mixed in the batter (tomatoes and peas, onions and hot chiles, coconut shreds, etc.).  They are big enough to be a meal on their own, and also come with Sambar soup and chutney.  On the House Specialties menu are a number of scrumptious treats, like Chana Batura and Poori Bhaji, both puffy breads served with curries to eat them with.  I often see the Indian clientele eating these.  They also have uppuma, a cream of wheat mush with vegetables and nuts.  This is SUCH a good dish in general, though at Udipi it is perhaps a little too heavy on the ghee (butter).  Sree’s occasionally makes uppuma (upma on his menu), and his is spot on!  But feel free to give it a try at Udipi too and decide for yourself – you will certainly be filled up by the end, no matter what you order!

And finally, if you are feeling especially hungry and want to royally treat yourself to the ultimate cultural adventure, get the South Indian Thali which gets you a little bit of all the dishes you might get at a real lunch in Tamil Nadu: sambar, dhal, kootu, roti, avial, curd, pickle (MMM), and still others I can’t remember (note, this does not include a dosai or any of the other above mentioned items).  Even if you don’t want an adventure, a trip to Udipi can satisfy.  Just follow my patented three-step program to Udipi appreciation: (1) Snake your way there via convoluted roads, (2) Drink a mango lassi and eat Dhai Vada and Masala Dosai, and (3) Pay a ridiculously small amount of money for the food you just ate.  It’s that easy – just don’t get lost on the way there or you’ll be eating M.T.O. at Sheetz instead.

Mango Lassi
Dhai Vada
Masala Dosai

The curries and rices are much less special than the rest of the menu.

This restaurant is all vegetarian!  Vegans will be delighted because many of the dishes are already prepared in vegan style.  If it isn’t mentioned on the menu, ask your server which dishes are good for you.  As always, those who just can’t have a meal without a hunk of flesh should stay away.  Also, Udipi is actually a national chain, so if you see an Udipi in another part of the nation, you will probably have as good of an experience as this.