But I Digest: Eating India Square

Photos: Simon Biswas

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008/09 issue of NEW (now JCI)

On a recent Saturday afternoon, we’re just steps from Journal Square, on Newark Avenue between Kennedy Boulevard and Tonnele Avenue, and the buoyant ethnic enclave of India Square is going full swing. Women in striking saris stroll with children in tow, palming unfamiliar produce with exotic names or stopping inside clothing stores adorned with vibrantly colored fabric. Young bachelors pile into numerous home-style snack houses while long lines of families out for early dinner swirl into the larger restaurants, filling the energetic street with laughs and conversation.

One of the most identifiable neighborhoods in Jersey City, India Square has blossomed over the last decade as businesses open to service a quickly growing Indian community. Luckily for fans of exotic flavors and cheap eats, a big portion of the area’s new commerce is restaurants, providing diners of all backgrounds with countless wallet-friendly options for chaats (Indian snacks or between meal pick-me-ups), baked goods, rich curries and vegetarian cuisine.

We dropped in on a nearly a dozen of the strip’s more heavily trafficked establishments, pressing staff for their recommendations (and asking a lot of questions) in order to round-up the best spots to suit your craving, from dosa to curry and back again.

777 Newark Ave.; 201-420-6660
Items: Cheese Rava Plain Dosa ($7.00), Papdi Chat (daily special, $5.00)

This informal eats spot boasts a long menu and two dozen of its namesake treat; the peak-hour lines are long, the vibe urban cafeteria. Flakey dosas glistening with hot ghee fly out to sticky tables on Styrofoam plates — a communal vat of spicy sambal rests in the rear. The rava dosa (which the Hut does best) are made from semolina-enriched dough, creating a crocheted crepe with toasty edges good for dipping. Dense but crisp, they boast a grilled-cheese sensibility that leaves fingertips slick and bellies full. A soothing papdi chat — freshly fried dough crackers topped with a mix of masala-seasoned potatoes, onions and chick peas, drizzled with a cool but too-runny yogurt-tamarind sauce — puts out flames from spicy sambal while lending pleasant texture to the meal.

779 Newark Ave.; 201-533-1555
Items: Mango Shake ($2.99); Chicken Biryani ($7.99)

Proud home of Hyderabadi regional cuisine (known for its liberal use of spice and lingering heat), Manpasand cooks up well-seasoned made-to-order meals in a small space reminiscent of a fried chicken joint. Roughly a dozen small tables line the narrow space in front of the counter, which still manages to squeeze in a cheaply priced buffet (check out the sign that explicitly chastises wasting food). Manpasand offers both vegetarian and regular cuisines, serving breakfast items like buttered dosa, snacks like savory “idly” cakes and entrees with varying heat intensity. A forgettable mango shake paired well with mild chicken biryani special (off the stationary menu, not the buffet) garnished with sliced of fresh lime and hardboiled egg.

801 Newark Ave.; 201-222-8655
Items: Chicken Biryani ($6.99)

A midway point between the dosa spots and standard sit-down restaurants. In place of servers, there is a single small table at the far wall where one staff member takes orders, communicates with the kitchen and cashes out customers simultaneously. A wide selection of tandoori, curries and vegetarian fare are available, but when a restaurant bills itself as the Biryani House, try the biryani — aromatic rice gently perfumed with seasonings including ginger, cardamom, bay leaf and coriander — accompanied by a marinated protein like chicken or goat. You can’t beat the price, but upon one visit a strong chemical smell (after years in the business, we’d bet our last lassi it was the industrial pesticide used to deal with vermin issues in many kitchens) dominated the dining room, driving diners away the moment they opened the door.

809 Newark Ave.; 201-222-3883
Items: Cheese Masala Dosa ($7.50); Mango Lassi ($2)

Like its big competitor Dosa Hut, the sparse Dosa House specializes in dozens of oversized crepes, from paper-thin plain buttered dosa to spiced veggie versions like green pea masala, slung from harried counter to numbered table. Here, traditional dosas rule. The crisp, air-light pancakes with lacy edges overhanging foam plates invite much ripping and tearing. The cheese masala dosa — with delicious layers of cheese and potatoes seasoned with fried onions, turmeric and fresh coriander leaves — unfolds flavors like lotus leaves. The ubiquitous sauce and coconut chutney sides have more flavor here than at the Hut, as does a well-balanced mango lassi (the best on the strip during recent visits). Dosa House is also 100 percent vegetarian, providing peace of mind for herbivores.

836 Newark Ave.; 201-798-9241
Items: Chocolate Barfi (prices vary); Samosa ($2.50)

One of several sweet spots where colorful, fudgy barfi — condensed milk confections in flavors like pistachio, chocolate or rose water — stretch out under glass bakery cases. Cheap snacks, from fried samosas and pakoras to fresh breads, are also available made to order. Pizzeria-style booths provide quick seating for informal sit-downs. There are also milky rosogolla, cloud-like cham-cham and a solid selection of other traditional Bengali desserts, best explained by the amiable staff. During select hours there’s also a vegetarian buffet, turning Bengali into a one-stop dinner shot with a better selection of desserts than anywhere else on the block.

808 Newark Ave.; 201-418-9669
Items: Almond Cookies (price by pound), Chicken Tikka Puff ($5.95)

Shortbread cookies topped with chopped almonds or cashews, pastry dough folded around tomato- and masala-seasoned chicken, vegetarian turnovers, seeded rolls glazed with egg — Hot Bread has baked goods aplenty to satisfy sweet or savory cravings. If you’re looking for barfi or other more traditional cheese-or-milk-based desserts there are better places on the block, but Hot Bread’s cookies can’t be beat after a heavy rava dosa or spicy meal elsewhere. The small bakery is also a good place for inexperienced Western palates to start — less intimidating than the crowded alternatives and with a few Americanized selections, it’s an easy way to initially try new flavors and textures.

812 Newark Ave.; 201-656-6660
Items: Limca Soda ($1.50); Mango, Pistachio and Rose Ice Creams ($1.25 each)

Part bakery, part dry goods store, the bodega-esque Rajbhog has booths for sit-down snacks, frozen goods in the rear, bakery cases full of sweets and a line almost out the door during peak hours. Assorted barfi, halwa (semolina or seasame based treats similar to barfi), and peda (thick milk cookies) line the cases for immediate munching or take-home. Head to the back of the store for individual cups of smooth, creamy Rajbhog brand ice cream to go in flavors like rose, mango or exotic raisin/cashew, scooped earnestly with little wooden spoons. Complete the ice-cream man flashback with a glass-bottled Limca, Coca-Cola’s Eastern variation on Sprite.

804 Newark Ave.; 201-533-8400
Items: Masala Dosa ($5.49); Pongal Avial ($7.49)

Boasting “pure vegetarian” South and North Indian Cuisines, Sapthagiri has a devoted herbivore following and helpful staff. Here the dosa are fluffier and spongier than the Hut and House’s wafer thin variations, good for eaters who prefer a more crepey take on the satisfying nibble (bonus points for ample fresh herbs in the dough). The pongal avail — rice cooked supersoft with lentils, ginger and cashews — a house specialty, was smooth and filling but needed a little extra kick, and came with a spicy bowl of house-made rasam (soup). There are plenty of curries, breads, tandoori and uthapaam — pancakes with toppings like lentils, peas, cashews or onions — for those who crave variety.

810 Newark Ave.; 201-222-8850
Items: Veggie Samosas ($3.95); Chicken Tikka Masala ($11.95)

Filled with exuberant chatter, Rasoi is a sit-and-stay venue favored by an eclectic mix of diners. A higher-end alternative to the gulp-and-go dosa shanties, the large menu spotlights vegetarian favorites like aloo gobi, assorted naans and meat-based choices. The dimly lit full bar offers a bit of privacy to its patrons – a good spot for nibblers seeking a strong drink and exotic treats like pakoras (veggie, fish or cheese fritters) or filling samosa choley. For entrees, a smooth, tomato-based chicken tikka masala spoons fragrantly over basmati rice while tandoori items whiz by on steaming sizzle platters. Ample portions and plenty of choices guarantee there’s something (and enough of) everything for everyone.

765 Newark Ave.; 201-222-0122
Items: Alu Paratha Roti ($2.99), Lamb Pasanda ($11.99), Thoom Lager (22 oz., $5.99)

Heavily decorated, The Village is an intended sit-and-linger establishment. Skip the chintzy buffet and stick to the extensive selection of Indian offerings. In addition to various chicken and vegetarian dishes, there are solid lamb and goat entrees, including Lamb Pasanda — boneless lamb chunks simmered in a rich, mild almond sauce garnished with creamy sliced cashews. Accessorize with a homemade roti like Alu Paratha – thin, spongy pan bread stuffed with potato and spices — and a crisp Indian beer, like the citrusy Thoom Lager.

a food/culture writer, author and proud Jersey native currently living on, and writing from, both sides of the Hudson. Her writing has appeared in City Belt, NEW, Draft and Gourmet magazines, as well as on sheknows.com and oldcookbooks.com. She is a senior entertainment reporter covering the New York theater scene for Broadway.com.