My wife took a bite of crispy cauliflower, and her eyes opened wide: the glossy red "Manchurian" sauce swirled from a deceptive first hint of sweetness to a sudden sour, then a wicked, swelling chile heat.
"Oh, that's so spicy it hurts," she said, taking a sip of ice water, then reaching for another forkful. "It's also one of the best things I've ever had. And I cannot believe how much they dumb down our Indian food."
By "they," she meant the many restaurants around Center City that over the decades have gently translated samosas, tandooris, and creamy masalas for the American palate. Several have achieved that mission admirably, entrancing us with the exotic allure of Indian cuisine.
But from our seat in the very modest orange-and-green confines of Exton's Indian Hut Curry & Cakes, it was clear that this casual strip mall bakery-cafe, lit by the mesmerizing pulse of glittery Bollywood videos, was far from the Center City norm in spirit, clientele, and spice.
The gobi Manchurian that triggered a trickle of sweat, as well as the fiery chickpea stew with balloon-puffed bhatura bread, had been ordered "mild." But there's a different heat scale here in the far-western Philly burbs, where many Indians have come for jobs in the tech industry. The line of customers stretching from the counter, where orders were placed for papery brown dosas, refreshing chaat salads, and biryani pilafs layered with goat, was almost entirely Indian, many with children in tow, including several college-age kids in pajamas and slippers.
"About 5,000 Indian families live within seven miles," says owner Mannu Mitt, who came to Malvern for a tech job before opening the Hut as a side business in 2009. "Some come here daily."
Mitt now owns a second eatery in Bensalem which also does a curiously brisk business in fresh sheet cakes that, despite their Americanized look (Yo, Mickey Mouse!), are less sweet for the Indian audience.
The chocolate truffle cake was better than I ever anticipated - fresh, creamy and moist. But honestly, I'm coming back to this Hut for the burn, not the buns.
The smart prices, mostly under $10 a dish, compensate for the extreme no-frills ambience. Another "hut" nearby, the Dosa Hut Chat House in Eagleville, is practically fancy by comparison. But for a vivid glimpse of genuine, untempered Indian flavors, this is as close as I've tasted here.
And like great Sichuan cuisine - coincidentally jump-started locally by Han Dynasty, whose original location shares this strip mall - the magic isn't simply in the spice itself. It's what the spice can do, awakening your taste buds with a twinge of pleasure-pain that opens the receptors to a whole new spectrum of flavors.
Crack open the chickpea-flour-crusted vada croquette, a vivid yellow potato patty served with Parker House-like "pav" rolls smeared with mint chutney, and the aroma instantly tickles your nose with coriander, cumin, and the high-toned caraway scent of ajwain seeds riding high on fresh green chile. Pav are a popular street food item in India that are rarely seen around Philly - not unlike the South Indian dosas or recently popular Indo-Chinese specialties that also make this menu a draw. The "chili"-sauced paneer, whose ketchup-red, Chinese-fusion gravy is more garlicky than the ginger-forward Manchurian style, would be a new personal obsession, like the gobi, had the paneer cheese cubes not been so firm.
I'm not convinced the Indian Hut's very good dosas are noticeably superior to those of nearby Devi, which I reviewed years ago. But I loved the carnivore's option of stuffing that dosa, a giant tawny crepe of fermented black lentils (crunchy outside, pliant inside), with a tender chicken stew fragrant with curry leaves, even better after a dunk in sambar broth and a creamy dollop of coconut chutney.
Cooked by Madras-born chef Bala Guru, all of the Hut's chicken dishes, in fact, were outstanding. The South Indian "chettinad" is rife with a spice box of star anise, cinnamon, and cumin enriched with coconut. The homestyle biryani nestles chunks of bone-in chicken beneath heaps of basmati rice whose multicolored threads reveal how closely layered to the stew they were as they steamed. Upgrade $2 to a crowning handful of "chicken 65," the red nuggets of fried chicken electric with ginger and chilies. Or raise your biryani to another level with goat, the tender, pleasantly gamy choice of the weekend crowds.
But even the more familiar dishes bring an extra edge. The creamy gravy of dal makhani made with black gram lentils strikes an earthy chord with crushed fenugreek leaves. Yellow dal resonates with dried red peppers. The cheese dumplings called malai kofta, their rich cashew gravy also tweaked with fenugreek, rise on the fluffiness of centers studded with raisins and nuts.
Bored with good old chicken tandoori? Guru's bone-in birds are different: the surprisingly juicy, heat-charred meat, scored for maximum penetration of its gingery pink garlic marinade, resonates with a halo of unexpected spice.
The ultimate quenchers (aside from plenty of BYO beer) are the various cold chaat salads - those crispy, colorful, masala spice-dusted jumbles of fried crackers, chickpeas and swirling chutneys. I loved the sev puri, with a hail of crispy dough-threads. The fresh-fried crackers, potatoes, and yogurt of the alu tikki chaat was even more satisfying. Better still were the pastry bubbles of pani puri into which we spooned chickpeas and potatoes, then splashed with a watery brown brew of minty chutneys. It would have been refreshing had it not been spiked with - green chilies.
Too late. It hurt so good, I was hooked.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews In Riva, in East Falls. Contact him at email@example.com.