Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you think she should go next? Drop us a line.
I put a lot of trust in a restaurant’s employees when it comes to ordering, especially if it’s my first time in. I’m constantly asking for detailed descriptions of dishes, the place’s most popular items, a server's personal favorites, and any other advice I can gather. At India Sweet House in West LA, however, I’m on my own. When I step up to the counter and announce to the man behind it that I’ve never been here before, I get a blank stare. "Any recommendations?” Still nothing. I point to the menu behind the counter and ask, “Should I get one of the vegetables?” referring to the list of a la carte veggie dishes behind him including saag paneer, eggplant, and daal. (Everything here is vegetarian.) “Or maybe a few of the snacks?” I continue. “Yes, vegetables, snacks,” he replies. I chalk it up to a language barrier, and instead ask a couple of guys eating lunch what they suggest. They both ordered paratha, an Indian pancake filled with a variety of ingredients, and think I should too. “Get the paratha aloo, with potatoes and peas, it’s the best,” one says. Now that’s the kind of strong opinion I’m looking for.
I order the paratha, but decide I should at least try something from the snacks menu, considering they’re just a couple of bucks each. There’s puri chana, fried bread with spicy chickpeas; vegetable fritters better known as pakoras; and dahi bada, a lentil ball with yogurt sauce. Many of the choices have descriptions, many don't. I throw out a couple of last-ditch questions about the snacks and end up accidentally ordering a samosa/chana duo. For $1.75, I just go with it.
The samosa/chana wasn’t the best choice, I realize, since the samosa’s filling is, of course, also potato and peas, same as the paratha I've just ordered. The samosa arrives soaking beneath a few healthy scoops of the chana, chickpeas in a thick, kicky sauce. I don’t get to enjoy the crispiness of samosa's pastry crust (my favorite part) since it quickly mushes up under the heaviness of the chana sauce, but it's still a nice, hearty dish, much more than a snack, and a good deal.
The paratha is huge — the size of a small pizza, with two pieces of light crepe-like layers draped over the smashed buttery potatoes, plump peas, slivered onions and a smattering of cumin seeds. A cup of a tart, creamy yogurt comes along with it as does a tiny scoop of pungent pickled mango. I also grab a bit of mint chutney from the restaurant's condiment bar which makes a nice pairing with the yogurt.
The paratha is a wonderful lunch on its own and for under $4, it's a bargain. I would have been perfectly happy if a more knowledgeable customer hadn't stopped in and ordered a thali lunch special — which turns out to be a monstrous platter made up of a couple of vegetable dishes, rice, naan, and daal. Shortly after he digs in a couple walks in and after looking over the menu asks simply to have what he's having. Who wouldn't want that deal? I fight off regret, reminding myself how good the paratha is.
If you're looking for atmosphere, it's not here. The restaurant's utilitarian faux wood booths, fluorescent lighting, and mostly bare walls give the place a rest stop feel, and with the lone counter employee spending most of his time in the kitchen, customers take their lunches in an eerily silent dining room, with just the whir of the ceiling fan for background music. And, finally, don't give the interior too close of an inspection as crumbs seem to be everywhere and the ledge under the front window looks like it was last swept back when the name Kardashian brought to mind O.J.'s lawyer.
And finally, on to the sweets. The two glass cases, filled with baking sheets of various types of sticky-looking confections, are doing their jobs by not allowing anyone to walk out after lunch without first picking up a little dessert. And after I can't eat any more paratha, samosa, and chana, I succumb, too. But this time, rather than try to figure out what's what, I point to the menu descriptions that appeal to me, and have the guy hand over the goods — all sold by the pound. My barfi pista, a malleable square made with cheese and dotted with small chunks of pistachios, is rich, crumbly and has a mild sweetness. I love the granular texture of the ladoo-pini, and orangey ball of chick peas, flour, butter and sugar, which has the decadence of an early-stage scoop of cookie dough. Both are perfect post-lunch treats, but I still can't help but wonder if there's anything else he'd recommend.
Snacks, Vegetable Dishes and Entrees: $0.75 to $5.95
Sweets: $4 to $9 per pound
— Lizbeth Scordo