Finding South Indian cuisine in Seattle is rare, making the reopening of this beloved spot all the more exciting.
Chili’s South Indian Cuisine — not to be confused with the Mexican-ish chain, even when you casually mention to a friend that you’re looking forward to dinner at Chili’s — has been beloved in the University District since 2008, barring last year’s brief closure, thanks to a construction shuffle. It’s eight blocks south of its previous location on The Ave, with no remaining vestiges of its beginning as a minimart’s food counter.
If there is ever a contest for kindest restaurateur in Seattle, owner Anila Swamy should be a contender. Expect both a hug and a chat if you haven’t been in recently, and when she’s not cooking, she’s a great storyteller, whether the topic is the farmers market or the TSA.
Take four steps, and you’re in the middle of this warm gold room (look closely; the walls are pearlescent). Tables are snugged closely together, and sitting on the aisle by the entrance means you’ll be a part of a busy takeout crowd. Have a quieter meal at a table along the north wall, or on a perch at the window counter. Wherever you sit, it won’t take long to be offered a cup of complimentary chai. It’s good; sweeten if you like.
Chili’s South Indian Cuisine
4220 University Way N.E., Seattle (University District); open Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., lunch buffet 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; 206-349-1434; chilissouthindianrestaurant.com
The menu: South Indian food is a rarity in Seattle, and you’ll spot only one or two of the north Indian classics you find all over town. Ordering a thali takes some of the decision-making out of your hands; four small bowls of assorted curries are served with rice and your choice of flatbread. Make it a special thali, and you’ll also have a fried lentil bun called a vada for an appetizer, two excellent soups and gulab jamun, a dessert made from cooked milk dough soaked in rosewater sugar syrup. It’s the world’s softest and most floral fritter.
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What to skip: While the dosa was delicious (and gluten-free, made from lentil and rice batter), the paneer variant comes folded around cold, shredded cheese. The high-school physics mystery of delicate, piping-hot crepe and bland, cold filling was more enjoyable to ponder than to eat. Clumpy steamed rice doesn’t live up to the ideal of basmati, nor to the greatness of the vadas, pooris, parathas and chapattis.
Don’t miss: A bowl of Kerala chicken masala was absolutely terrific. Its thick sauce rated a strong medium on the Indian heat index, with slightly floral undertones and a wonderful richness. Chapattis are a bread option with most entrees; they’re like pancakes made out of puff pastry, impossibly flaky and slightly sweet.
Prices: Special vegetarian thali ($15.99), paneer dosa ($8.99) and Kerala chicken ($13.99) came to $39 before tax and tip, feeding two hungry people.