What makes a restaurant special enough for us to return to again and again? In our recurring essay series Why We Go, we ask our favorite cultural and literary figures why they returned to a treasured place. Here, award-winning director and writer Sujata Day recalls the spot in L.A. she yearns for most.
Nothing beats my mom’s home-cooked Indian food. Living in Los Angeles, I’m constantly on a quest for a singara (Bengali samosa) that tastes as perfect as hers. I haven’t found it yet, but India Sweets and Spices in Atwater Village is about as close as it gets.
When my parents visit from Pennsylvania, India Sweets and Spices in Atwater Village is our first stop. Not only is it a dine-in restaurant; it’s also attached to a bustling Indian market selling everything from fresh vegetables to embroidered saris.
My parents are from Kolkata, in northeast India. Our family eats meat and fish, like most Bengalis. The majority of Indian restaurants in the US are north Indian. India Sweets and Spices is south Indian, so you’re not going to find tandoori chicken or lamb vindaloo here. What you will find are classic south Indian vegetarian specialties like dosa, uttapam, and idli sambar.
I’ll just come right out and say it: I’m an Indian food snob. Most of the restaurants outside of Artesia (known as Little India) in Los Angeles are just meh. One time, my grandma and great aunt were visiting and as we drove the multiple freeways to arrive at Pioneer Boulevard, my grandma scoffed, “We’re traveling this far for some phuchka?!” She was horrified that a common treat she could just walk outside and procure from a street vendor for a few rupees was an hour’s drive away.
It doesn’t get much better at home: I don’t have the patience for cooking in general. I wish I did. I live off frozen pizzas, salad in a bag, and popcorn. I’ve tried to watch and learn my mom’s delicious dishes as she makes them, but like most Indian moms, she uses zero recipes and measurements. I once tried to make her tandoori chicken and it came out inedibly spicy. As a yogurt-based item, nothing tandoori is ever supposed to be in the realm of spicy. I tried, failed, and never tried again.
Suffice it to say that India Sweets and Spices is a real lifeline. After parking dangerously close to another car in the crowded lot, we walk in and are immediately flooded by sensory overload. The mixed aroma of spices clears our sinuses, vegan hipsters sit at the cafeteria-style tables, and Bollywood music videos play from a television hanging from a wall. Bulletin boards overflow with flyers announcing ‘seeking Desi roommate,’ upcoming concert performances from Indian artists, and religious events at the local Hindu temples.
My mom hovers in front of the display of mishti (sweets) and choora (spicy chips) as my dad and I mull over the steaming buffet. Mouth-watering curries vary from day to day depending on whatever the cook feels like cooking, but there’s usually always daal and chola. Some of my favorite sides on rotation are pumpkin, eggplant, and mattar tofu. If you’re looking for a range of spice levels, move along. India Sweets and Spices ain’t got time for that nonsense. I appreciate that they have one spice level and it’s just hella spicy.
Bulletin boards overflow with flyers announcing ‘seeking Desi roommate,’ upcoming concert performances from Indian artists, and religious events at the local Hindu temples.
Combination platters are all priced under $10. Talk about a deal. My dad and I opt for combo #3 with basmati rice, chapati or fried puri, samosa, salad, papad, pickle, a choice of two curries, and dessert or lassi. They don’t skimp on their servings and I always end up with breakfast leftovers. If you can’t handle heat; I’m telling you right now, don’t even bother with the pickle. It’ll set your mouth on fire. Feel free to try it, but have your cup of yogurt lassi close as a chaser.
My mom orders phuchka (pani puri) and a dosa. Phuchka is a popular Indian street food. Whenever I go back home, my mom serves up her own version of phuchka with imli water, chickpeas, potatoes seasoned with chaat masala, and tamarind chutney stuffed in fried, crispy shells. They’re on par with Indian street stalls. Dosa is a crispy, large crepe-like dish made with a fermented batter of rice and lentils. It’s usually served with a side of sambar (vegetable stew) and tomato and coconut chutneys. My mom picks a rava masala dosa, filled with curried potatoes, from the variety of dosas on the menu. I choose an empty table for us, with a clear view of the Bollywood videos.
Back in western Pennsylvania, ours is one of many immigrant families who settled in the suburbs. Gathering and celebrating around food is the bedrock of our community. We’d hang at local restaurants like India Garden, Udipi, and the temple to eat and catch up with friends who felt more like family. My parents hosted Thanksgiving every year for all the Bengali-American families in the region. Sitting down with my parents at India Sweets and Spices now feels like dipping a crunchy dosa in sambar at Udipi, going back for buffet seconds at India Garden, or filling up on tamarind rice at the temple.
The server calls out our number and hands us our trays. I pluck a phuchka off my mom’s plate and plop it into my mouth. Perfection. After we eat and pack up our leftovers, it’s time to hit the market. I spot Lay’s masala-flavored chips and throw a few single serving bags into the cart, along with a couple bottles of Thums Up cola. My mom examines the produce, bags up fresh ginger, and strolls up and down the aisles for spices she needs to stock up on. My dad surveys the religious section and picks out some incense for their daily prayers. I hit the personal care corner and select some Neem toothpaste, turmeric soap, and coconut oil. (Listen, nothing beats Ayurvedic Indian products if you’re making the switch to natural beauty.)
We check out our groceries and mosey back over to the restaurant, where my mom picks out some kalakand (milk cake) and jalebi for the road. We each sip on a cup of chai made with full fat vitamin D milk, and I polish off the rest of my samosa. India Sweets and Spices could never take the place of my mom’s cooking, but it has my family’s stamp of approval.