Hello! I ate my first lunch thali at Kabob’s in Bloomington late last month and had to post about it right away. That thali was so good, I pronounced t the best lunch deal and probably the best Indian food in the Twin Cities Metro. I’ve since eaten the lunch thali there on a few more occasions and I stand by both those assertions. If there is a better lunch deal in the area I would like to know what it is. And if there is better Indian food to be had I would love to eat it. In the meantime I find myself manufacturing reasons to drive through Bloomington at lunch time. I stopped in two more times just this week, once with the missus and once alone. Having come upon this unlikely jewel so late I have now predictably turned into a one-man advertising agency for them. They have no idea I am writing about them but I must urge you all to go eat their wonderful thalis. There’ll be no butter chicken, saag paneer or dal makhni; you won’t always know what’s in the bowls (see below for my recent confusion) but if you like delicious food prepared with care you will love it.
On the first visit this week I got the vegetarian thali and the missus got the non-veg thali. The non-veg thali was basically the veg thali plus a couple of meat dishes. The one thing on the veg thali that was not on the non-veg thali was pakoras—delicately battered and fried, not the dough-fests available in most Indian restaurants. The non-veg thali had likewise a crisp chicken fry and also a delicious Chettinad chicken curry. These were the shared dishes: jackfruit poriyal, rasam, sambar (not identical to the one at my first meal), a wonderful curry of black chickpeas with eggplant, lemon rice, a mini-dosa with an excellent (and hot!) coconut chutney, sour curd, and carrot halwa. All were at least very good.
A few days later I stopped in again. It was a Friday and Fridays mean fish thalis. Other than the rasam there was nothing on the thali that was a repeat from either thali earlier in the week. There was an excellent sweet-sour dal with carrots and drumstick (the Indian veg, not chicken legs), a beetroot poriyal (quite different from my recipe but very good), an excellent spicy curry featuring karela/bitter gourd, a mystery-ingredient kootu (see below for the solution to the mystery), very good tomato rice, an excellent fish curry, a perfect crisp/soft paratha, raita and rava kesri (or sooji halwa as we call it in the North).
All, again, for $10. I cannot stress enough how good a deal this is. Frankly, for the quality I’d gladly pay double. As I said to the embarrassed chef on Tuesday, I’d be happy to eat this meal in India. And I’m not exaggerating.
Take a look at what you (may) have been missing and make a plan go eat lunch there next week. Remember: there’s no lunch thali on weekends. Though given the quality of the lunch thali it will not be a bad idea to eat there at any time of the day or week. After you’ve gaped at the slideshow scroll down for the fascinating saga of the mystery veg on Friday’s thali.
So, the mystery veg from Friday’s thali: it looked like potato and had the texture of radish but was neither. At first I thought it might be lauki (bottle gourd) but it didn’t taste like it at all. I asked the friendly server who I enjoy chatting with whenever I am there. I’m Bengali, he’s Punjabi but we both have Hindi in common (he speaks English too but we slip into Hindi without noticing). He puzzled over it but couldn’t identify it. “Must be alu (potato)”, he said. “No yaar”, I said, “you don’t think I know what alu tastes like?” “It’s more like mooli”, I said. He said, “looks like it but you would know if it was mooli also”. On this we agreed. He brought out another bowl of it, I poured it into the thali—we stared at it but were none the wiser.
Then he remembered that the chef had written down the names of the dishes on the thali on a piece of paper for him. He went and got it. The list was in English and the kootu was listed as featuring chau chau. “What is chau chau?”, we both asked at the same time. Could it be raw plantain? Some kind of yam? Finally, he went and got the chef. But the chef is Tamil and couldn’t give us a name for it in Hindi or English. He did confirm that the name was chau chau. “Do you have one in the back?” I asked. He said he might and went to check but then came back saying the last one had already been prepped. At this point another Tamil speaker emerged from the back of the house and tried to explain what it was with reference to other vegetables but he only knew the Tamil names of those as well, which helped the server and me not at all.
Finally we took recourse to Google. It turned out to be chayote—which is apparently known as chau chau or chow chow in Tamil. Welcome to the multilingual, heterogeneous, intensely-regional world of Indian food. And let this be a reminder to you to treat with skepticism anyone representing themselves as an authority on Indian food. There’s just too much of it.
Like I said, you won’t always know what everything on the thali is, but it will all be delicious. The chau chau kootu certainly was. I do hope you’ll go soon and see what else they’re cooking up. But if you show up at peak lunch time please be prepared to be patient. It’s a small operation and they get a lot of takeout business. And they don’t take shortcuts: you might have to wait a bit for your order to be taken and then put on the table, but the wait will be worth it. Or if you want to get it to go, the thali is also available for takeout.
There’s another thali place scheduled to open up even closer to us next week. Decency requires I give them some business before going back to Kabob’s. Let’s see if I can summon the resolve. But before any more Indian food action I’ll have reviews of Hyacinth and Homi in St. Paul and Lat 14 in Golden Valley. All coming up in the next few weeks.