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Cover Story | Authentic Ethnic

A Gourmet Passage to India

For a taste of the subcontinent, head for Artesia. On Pioneer Boulevard, more than half of the places are vegetarian.


Southern California, despite having a large population of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, doesn't have a sprawling ethnic Indian neighborhood such as ones found in Chicago's West Rogers Park or New York's Jackson Heights.

What we have representing this substantial percentage of the world's population is a narrow, heavily concentrated strip in the sleepy city of Artesia, centered on and around Pioneer Boulevard, just south of the 91 Freeway. The shops extend until the street approaches South Street. That is where the neighborhood becomes purely residential.

This area abounds with sari shops, goldsmiths, appliance stores stocked with low-priced pressure cookers and the stackable metal lunch containers called tiffin tins; also bangle shops, video stores that stock the latest hit movies from such subcontinent heartthrobs as Sanjay Dutt and Siri Devi, and above all, interesting and authentic places to eat.

On any given day (except Monday, when most Indian shops and restaurants around the area are tightly shuttered), you'll see a parade of people crowding their way up to counters for an almost endless hit parade of snack foods, light lunches, exotic ice creams and herb mixtures bound up by aromatic leaves.

Indian food, such as it is in this country, is somewhat limited outside such places as Artesia. Most Indian restaurants around Los Angeles are Punjabi in origin, serving the meaty cuisine of north India.

It's different on Pioneer Boulevard, though, where more than half of the places are vegetarian, mirroring the subcontinent itself. For a better idea about what to expect on this street, envision the four compass points, then eliminate the east, the cuisine influenced by the state of Bengal. The cooking of India's easternmost provinces doesn't exist in Artesia or anywhere else in the Southland.

What that leaves is southern and western Indian cooking--the first being spicy dishes from cities such as Chennai, formerly Madras, and the second a brace of dense, slightly sweet and salty dishes from the Gujurat state, where Gandhi had his ashram. Both cuisines can be considered as options to the richer dishes of north India and adjacent Pakistan, which exist here in force as well.

Closest to the 91 Freeway is Woodlands, a south Indian restaurant that borrows its name from a famous chain of hotels and restaurants in south India, though this restaurant has no connection with it. The cuisine is purely vegetarian, cooked in the style of such cities as Mysore, once home to India's wealthiest maharaja. A statue of Shiva guards the door; penetrating music plays on the sound system. Here, you eat variations on the theme of rice and lentils, along with remarkably delicious chutneys made of coconut, mint and tamarind.

Try vada , crunchy lentil donuts crackling with chili and spice, or Mysore bonda , named for one of India's most picturesque and palatial cities, perfectly fried balls of crisp, spiced potato and chickpea flour. Mysore royal thali is a sumptuous tray of 14 dishes, an amazing show of the complexity of this cuisine. The thali 's dessert, called payasam , is great; it's vermicelli cooked in milk, honey and spices, garnished with raisins.

North Indian Food, Rich and Heavy

Just below Woodlands is the India Restaurant, a clean, fancied-up place with a green carpet, purple tablecloths and white walls, plus a row of Deco-style crystal chandeliers. This is north Indian food, rich and heavy, and most of the business is at lunch, when there is a bountiful buffet every day of the week, even Monday.

This is the only buffet on the street serving fish pakoras, lentil-battered pieces of Alaskan pollock, but the other buffet dishes, such as the impossibly rich vegetable patties in cream sauce called vegetable korma or chicken makhni , chicken cooked in the tandoor, or clay oven, and then stewed in butter, yogurt and tomato sauce, and the impressive variety of spicy stewed vegetables, make this a great deal for $6.45.

The next stop for a north Indian meal is the Little India Grill, owned by Indians from the Fiji Islands, where there is a large Indian population. This is some of the best food on the street, but it's a very modest place. At lunch, $5.99 buys you a small plastic tray that you can fill, all-you-can-eat style, with goat curry, tandoori chicken, stewed eggplant, a pea and carrot curry, the vegetable fritters called pakoras, rice, lentils and all the hot naan bread you can eat.

Just behind the grill, in a large strip mall called Artesia Town Center, are two of the more unusual stores here. One is Asian Sweets and Spices, a Pakistani grocery that is the only store for halal meat or Pakistani video rentals around here. The other is a small, inviting Portuguese bakery called Portazil Pastry, which serves as a de facto social club for the many Portuguese speakers who live nearby, most of whom are from the Azores.

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