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One Star of Southern India

November 02, 1995|JONATHAN GOLD

Southern Indian vegetarian cooking can be ranked among the great cuisines of the world--fiery, brightly spiced stews, rigorously vegetarian, accompanying a vast array of starches. There are cashew fritters and steamed rice patties; poridges and dumplings; crisp, fermented-batter crepes big as tablecloths, served with bowls of thin lentil curry.

But in Los Angeles, although there may be five times as many Indian restaurants as there were just a decade ago, almost all of them--including the vegetarian joints--specialize in the food of just one or two northern states, plus maybe some Pakistani dishes. Creamy, gently spiced Northern Indian vegetarian food may be tasty, but it often lacks the focus, the directness, the flat-out chile heat of the various South Indian cuisines.

Some local restaurants make stabs at the classic southern dishes. Standard Sweets and Snacks in Artesia makes a decent version of the potato-stuffed southern pancake called masala dosa . Jay Bharat, just across the street, specializes in the vegetarian cooking of the midwestern state of Gujarat but features credible stuffed versions of the southern sourdough pancake uttapam .

Still, if you want to eat a full southern Indian meal, you have essentially two choices: Paru's, in Hollywood, whose masala dosai is justly famous but whose cooking tends to be lackluster, and Madhu's Dasaprakash, in a plushly appointed Cerritos storefront, which may be the best single Indian restaurant in Southern California.

Dasaprakash is vegetarian, but you can eat there a dozen times without seeing an actual vegetable among the brittle cashew fritters, the fried bean patties called masala vadai, the airy samosas, the crisp, lacy pancakes made out of the Indian equivalent of Cream of Wheat, pretty much all served with a little bowl of the thin, lightly savory lentil sambhar . Pessret is a giant lentil-flour pancake, as big around as a phonograph record and enclosing a sharply spicy mixture of green chiles and minced raw onions.

After the fritters and pancakes comes a savory semolina pudding called uppuma , which seems two-thirds butter by weight, and maybe a dense, sweet square of carrot fudge. Great southern Indian cooking may be vegetarian, but it's not precisely health food.

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