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Eclectic Veggie Bonanza

Northridge's A-1 Produce and Veggie Lovers Deli doesn't fail to surprise

June 27, 2002|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Where do you go for mangoes as sweet as sugar, garbanzos by the 20-pound sack, henna for hand tattooing and a hearty, complex vegetarian meal? Simple. A-1 Produce and Veggie Lovers Deli in Northridge.

The Southland abounds with colorful ethnic markets, but Somi Rehil, former owner of A Taste of India in downtown Burbank, has just upped the ante. On top of the bulk legumes, jars of mustard seed oil (essential for Bengali dishes), Ayurvedic medicines and spicy cereal snacks in foil bags, this big new market includes a restaurant serving a riot of Indian vegetarian classics, plus some surprise Mexican and Chinese dishes.

The restaurant is located near the entrance (accessed from the rear parking lot), but no matter where you are, you can smell its simmering vegetables. It's a plain, functional place of plastic chairs and Formica-topped tables.

You slide your tray past a steam table stocked with various stews and sautes to the cash register, where you order. South Indian snacks and soups are also available, all cooked to order. Everything is impeccably fresh and laughably cheap.

How cheap? On my first visit, I got a combination lunch consisting of a trencherman's portion of bengan bartha (a smoky dish of eggplant sauteed with tomatoes, onions and spices) and added a heap of basmati rice, some of the cooling yogurt and chopped vegetable concoction raita, spiced lentils (dal), the hot, puffy fried bread puri, a pile of pickled cauliflower yellow from turmeric and a lot of chopped onions. Six dishes: $3.50.

On another occasion I tried the saag paneer, minced spinach stewed with big chunks of farmer's cheese, which looks like creamed spinach from a steakhouse. It's a dish that actually deepens in flavor in a steam table, and this version is about as good as it gets.

The combination lunch is only one option. Many Indian customers will be eating masala dosa, wafer-thin lentil flour crepes with a sour tang that's offset by a complex filling of curried potatoes, peas and cashews. These seriously crunchy, golden brown dosas are more than a foot and a half long. Indians generally eat them as snacks.

You could snack yourself into oblivion here, actually. I loved the potato bonda, spicy deep-fried potato balls that fairly burst with steam when bitten. The pakoras are thumb-sized chunks of vegetables such as cauliflower, onion or fiery green chiles (mirch) enrobed in yellow lentil flour batter and deep-fried. A-1 sells pakoras to go by the pound.

From Gandhi's home state of Gujarat comes dhokla, squares of steamed garbanzo bean flour eaten like cornbread. India does have a cornbread, makki roti, and you can get that here too. It's actually a grilled flatbread, and even though Indians don't usually smear it with butter, it's delicious that way.

Another south Indian specialty that this kitchen does well is uttapam, a thick griddled semolina pancake studded with bits of tomato, green chile and onion. This uttapam comes with a small bowl of thin lentil soup called sambar, strongly flavored with lime and tamarind.

For customers who aren't into this sort of Indian home cooking, the kitchen makes a few good Chinese dishes, such as spicy sauteed tofu, thickly breaded mushrooms with sweet and sour sauce, and even a vegetarian chow mein of nappa cabbage, carrots, broccoli and noodles.

There also are Mexican specials, which aren't bad either. The black bean and cheese burrito is fat and flavorful, oozing Oaxacan cheese. The enchiladas are firm and plump--like Indian pancakes, in fact, if you omit the cheese.

Most Indian desserts are variations on the theme of milk and sugar. Barfis are fudge-textured milk sweets laced with almonds or cashews. One of the best desserts is rasgolla, balls of sweetened cottage cheese in a rich white cream sauce.

There are also wonderful homemade ice creams (kulfis), rich, caloric slabs flavored with mango, pistachio and other tropical fruit. There is even Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream in the freezer, if you insist.

A-1 Produce & Veggie Lovers Deli, 9043 Reseda Blvd., Northridge. (818) 998-6900. Food served 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa. Lunch for two, $8 to $15.

What to Get: saag paneer, masala dosa, potato bonda, pakoras, kulfi ice creams.

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