There is so much to take in while strolling the aisles of Dana Mandi, the colorfully painted Indian market on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia, it would be easy not to look behind the gold curtain.
But that would be a mistake.
On your way through the store, there's an impressive array of tall glass hookahs behind the register and huge sacks of basmati piled high, shelves lined with fragrant bags of cumin and other spices, asafoetida powder, endless varieties of papadum wafers, and myriad crunchies to lend your chaat snacks snap.
But do not stop at that final shelf. Because just beyond, and around the corner through heavy gold curtains, some of Philadelphia's best Indian food awaits. There's nothing fancy about the dining room here, a makeshift space where long community tables flanked by international students and cab drivers hunker down over Styrofoam thali platters of Punjabi home cooking while a flat-screen TV blares Bollywood flicks and international cricket.
But do you hear that? Slap! Slap! Slap!
That's the sound of Balvir Kaur, one of the Singh family cooks in the kitchen, hand-forming whole-wheat dough into roti and paratha flatbreads against a metal table before they sizzle on a hot steel tawa griddle. Their earthy, heat-spotted rounds emerge layered with paper-thin stuffings of garlicky cauliflower (gobi), cilantro-tinged mashed potatoes (aloo), crumbly paneer cheese or shredded daikon (mulli) that I just can't stop eating.
Yes, customers order on blue squares of cardstock paper at a counter, and it arrives on a cafeteria tray in plastic to-go tubs. And the menu itself will be largely familiar to those who've explored the northern-style cooking that dominates most of Philadelphia's Indian kitchens - especially in University City, where all-you-can eat buffets have long been a somewhat artless but bargain staple. (The many exciting southern-inflected restaurants sprouting in the Dosa Belt of Philly's far western suburbs are another story altogether.)
But there is just something about the flavor of these multicolored dals, tandoor-roasted breads, and fragrant stews that, despite their humble packaging, seems so much brighter and vivid with homespun soul than so many others - and at a stunningly cheap $4 to $7.50 for an 8-ounce portion.
Not that the Singh family puts on airs.
"I try to keep it simple," says co-owner Rajesh Singh, whose brother-in-law, Jasvir Singh, is the principal chef. "We cook everything the same way!"
Singh is referring to the fact that many Indian dishes begin with similar building blocks of flavor - a base of garlic, onions, and fresh ginger, zapped with coriander, cumin, chiles and an aromatic boost of garam masala spice.
But the beauty of traditional food made with homestyle care by cooks who love what they're doing is that none of these dishes really do taste the same. Instead, they draw infinite variety through subtly different textures, ingredient balance, and shades of spice that infuse each bite with a vibrance that leaps from the plastic spoon to light the happy tandoor in my brain.
Baingan bartha brings a mashed roast eggplant that is so light it's fluffy, its tomato-tanged flesh at first fragrant with coriander seeds, then a smoldering flicker of lingering heat. Aloo gobi is a vivid turmeric yellow, but what strikes me is the cauliflower's texture, its florettes still just firm enough to hold gingery soft potatoes inside its frame. Slow-stewed okra (bhindi) is tender but still has crunch.
Punjabi kadhi is one signature dish I've not seen much elsewhere, a tangy yellow yogurt stew thickened with earthy chick pea flour ("besan" or "gram"), topped with pakora fritters. It's a must-order here and typical of the owners' Punjabi homeland, which shares similarities with the royal Mughlai and Kashmiri cuisine that has defined the Indian cooking most Americans know.
One notable difference here is Dana Mandi's much lighter touch with the heavy cream and almonds that can weigh down dishes elsewhere. It's obvious in the chicken tikka masala, whose silky red gravy has a far deeper tomato hue and twang, rounded with sweet jaggery date sugar. It's even noticeable in the refreshing lassi smoothie, which tastes more like ripe mango than dairy.
Likewise, the often-creamed dal makhani is cream-less here, the lentil puree rising on a natural earthiness that leaves an almost lemony finish on my lips, plus a bold spice that carries through the split-chick-pea stew called "white chana." A Tuesday-only special of moong dal (or split yellow lentils) is pure porridge comfort.
The "mixed veg" dish, a jumbled mash of carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, and peas bound with crumbled paneer cheese, is a close second to that dal as a rustic favorite. It's perfect when pinched off with pieces of whole-wheat roti, followed by a wincingly potent palate-cleanser of sour-salty Indian pickle.
Dana Mandi, which expanded its kitchen after moving last year to this larger space from the building next door (soon to be another branch of Chili Szechuan), isn't West Philly's only cafe inside a market. There's basic Middle Eastern fare passed though the strange kitchen porthole into the rear dining room of nearby Makkah Market. A buffet of Indian fare to go at International Foods & Spices on Walnut Street, where I savored excellent ground chicken kebabs and tasted my first bitter gourd (like a cross between beef jerky and a dried poblano pepper), also makes a far more delicate samosa than Dana Mandi.
Fried food in general is a major Dana Mandi weak point. (Step away from the microwave, please!) And so is its limited selection of proteins. There's nothing so delicate as shrimp or fish, and the lamb kebab was a reheated letdown. (Save that craving for neighboring Kabobeesh). Then again, the tandoor-roasted chicken tikka was excellent. The silky spinach saag "meat" studded with tender chicken thighs had its appeal. And the pungently spiced and properly bony goat biryani was good enough to tide me over until my next trip to Trooper or Downingtown for a Hyderabadi rice wonder at the Dosa Hut or Bangles.
But there's already so much to like behind the curtain in this most unexpected place, Dana Mandi has definitely become one of my new hidden Philly favorites. And Jasvir's son Tejinder says Dana Mandi's emergence is not yet complete. They plan to build a proper dining room within the next year alongside the building where there is currently parking.
For the moment, all they've got marking that future in their current room is quite literally a hole in the wall. But with food this good, this cheap, and this authentic, nobody seems to mind.