Food & DrinkFood Features

Sri Balaji, South Indian Soul Food, and a Peek Inside the Unhinged Mind

Masala dosa
Masala dosa at Sri Balaji in Pineville. (Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

“It is impossible to overestimate the healing powers of a damn good dosa.”

This line is an example of how I begin to outline a review. 

I attempt to condense my first impression of a restaurant into a few simple words that will guide me through to the end. Subsequent visits may reinforce those words, or may lead me to change them altogether, but my goal is to capture the feeling and connection I felt toward the restaurant and its food in one concisely constructed sentence.

When a friend invited me to brunch a couple of months ago at Sri Balaji in Pineville, there was a glimmer of something in the back of my mind that I hoped might lead to a connection. I was desperate for one. 

Though physically located here in Charlotte, my mind had been elsewhere: 10,000-kilometers away in Singapore, where I lived for almost seven years. Nearly every weekend, I would walk (or take the bus or MRT, or make my way, really, by any means necessary) to a small restaurant on the edge of Little India and order one thing for breakfast: masala dosa. 

The massive, gossamer disc of fermented lentils and rice pays no mind to the boundaries of the plate —  rolled sideways into a cylinder, stuffed with chunky mashed potatoes and served with gravies full of color and spice. It was a sturdy and dependable breakfast, not to mention easy on the wallet, but for me, it was also new, invigorating and something that just felt right in my life. And like everything and everyone I knew in Singapore, I miss it terribly. 

So on that first visit to Sri Balaji, when I saw “masala dosa” hidden there amongst a menu full of South Indian comfort food — a list of incantations that will summon without fail delicious food every single time whether you recognize the words you’re reading or not — my order was as quick as it was obvious. I tore an edge off (why use a knife and fork when you have hands?), used it to pinch off a bit of potato, dipped the whole thing in a shiny, steamy sambar, closed my eyes, and ate.

That tear my friends saw me shed was genuine. Homesickness and reverse culture shock are real, tangible monsters, you see, and that one bite did as much to hold them at bay as it did to transport me back through space and time to that neighborhood café in Singapore. Or better yet, to bring all of that here to Pineville, to my table, with my new friends, circa now.

And that’s because it is impossible to overestimate the healing powers of a damn good dosa.

The food — always vegetarian and sometimes vegan — is so wonderful at Sri Balaji that it makes me want to sing. It makes me want to cry. On certain days, and if my mind is stuck mining through the regrets of what might have been had I never left Singapore, it makes me want to punch someone’s face in.

The point is, the food here makes me feel something, and I need to feel something first before I decide whether or not to write about it. I knew at once after that first bite of dosa that I had to write about Sri Balaji.

Is this unhinged? Absolutely. I find that anything worth writing about, and more broadly, anything worth doing, is best done in an unhinged frame of mind, unmoored from the comfort and safety of convention. What you might be inclined to call “the likely reason you are still single, Tim,” I prefer instead to call “passion.”

But how do I translate the passion I feel toward a restaurant and its food into prose that might make sense when read outside my head? We writers do, in fact, spend many hours of the day consulting dictionaries and thesauruses because word choice is important to us. I shouldn’t and won’t just assume that any of you will know what a dosa is, but if I do my job correctly, I can get those of you who don’t most of the way there. 

I myself teetered between “paper-thin pancake” and “crispy crêpe” before I settled on a way to describe it that was both not a disservice to the traditional dish itself and a celebration of the beautiful version that came out of the kitchen at Sri Balaji.

What do I do about the chili parotta, though? 

Is it enough for me to say, “This is the single best dish I have had all year?” Or maybe, “I haven’t had better South Indian food since I came back to the States?” For me, probably so. For you, probably not. It wouldn’t make any sense. You have no way of knowing what I ate while outside the country, nor would you have any clue as to what I consider to be “good” or even “better” than that. 

Chili parotta
Chili parotta (Photo by @telephonesmoothie)

My motivation as a food writer is to find a phrase that will connect to something within your own frame of reference, which will then allow you to join me in mine.

Do I then describe the dish? The texture: “Flatbread here is sliced and diced and cubed, and then fried into something that feels at once soft and crisp. Imagine the food equivalent of a stress ball, if you will, and then marvel at how the standard parotta is transformed at Sri Balaji into something even more comforting than billions of people around the world have always known it to be.”

Or, the flavor: “There’s heat from the chili, of course, but also something cheeky, like tomato and vinegar — dare I call it ketchup? When cooked together with red onions and peppers, your mind might go Chinese while the rest of you stays firmly in South India, or even Sri Lanka if you’re especially well-traveled. You may not realize until after you’ve left — when you’re back at home and licking your lips, eyes closed, and chasing down the memory of those phenomenal flavors — that you’ve happened upon the great tradition of Indo-Chinese food and didn’t even know it.”

Or is it better, instead, to go with something simple? An answer to a question. Like when I returned to Sri Balaji a second time, and a third time, all with different groups of friends, and I pointed out chili parotta on the list of incantations and said we had to order it. “Is it really good, Tim?” every friend had asked. And each time, I replied, “The chili parotta is the reason I fell in love with this restaurant.”

Going with groups of friends, by the way, is another trick in the restaurant critic’s back pocket, if for no other reason than it means getting to try as many different things as possible. It’s what’s needed to get through the endless list of utthapam — those fluffy, generously topped relatives of the dosa — at Sri Balaji.

But I stay silent and try not to influence their choices. There’s still something to be said of experiencing something new at the same time as others, rare as that might be these days.

Onion podi utthapam
Onion podi utthapam at Sri Balaji. (Photo by @telephonesmoothie)

On one visit, a friend bit into onion podi utthapam and said it reminded her of Korean pajeon, food cousins many times removed, perhaps, and I can see what she means, but I was more focused on the chili powder and heady onion flavors. As a writer, how do I bridge those two different points of view in a way that does more than saying generically, “This utthapam is good?” 

On another visit, cheese utthapam, which some of us connect in our minds to pizza but might be better branded as “a wholesome hangover cure.” 

And this is to say nothing of the “SBC Special Utthapam” on yet another visit, which we ordered because none of us had any idea what “SBC Special” even meant (one guess: “Sri Balaji Caffe Special”). But the beads of sweat forming on my bald brow after not even swallowing my first bite created a new meaning, and that’s “chili, chili, and more chili, and when it’s all out, even more chili from that secret stash behind the counter.” When the laughter died down, a friend said it was so good that she was taking the leftovers home to her boyfriend.

That’s my secret writer reason for bringing friends to the restaurants I review: the reactions. No amount of experience or imagination I might possess can replace the genuine, unique reactions people have when eating something new and delicious. If anything, it serves as a control sample against which I can measure my own reactions to see how far off I might be. 

The lunch special at Sri Balaji in Pineville
The lunch special at Sri Balaji in Pineville. (Photo by @scallionpancake)

If I’m lucky — like that afternoon when a friend innocently ordered the lunch special and was presented with a metal tray bigger than her that contained a whole host of sambars, chutneys, and everything in between laid out like a patchwork quilt crafted over generations — I get to see wide-eyed wonder.

Which leaves me really only two things left to say.

One, I love food. I love restaurants. Sri Balaji is a reason I write about both.

And two, I do read your comments, including the letters you send to my editor asking that I be fired. I don’t respond to them individually. Consider this, though, to be my group response — a peek inside my unhinged mind — so that when I say things like, “Sri Balaji is a blessing, a grand temple for South Indian soul food, right here in our own backyard,” you’ll have some sense now of what all I went through to arrive at that assessment. 

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