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North Indian dishes like saag paneer, chicken tikka masala, and naan dominate the Indian restaurant landscape across Colorado—and much of the country—but the cuisines of India are actually as diverse as the 22 official languages spoken across that country. In the Denver metro area, there are several spots that serve specialties from India’s southern regions, like dosa (a rice and lentil crepe), idli (steamed lentil and rice cakes), and coconut-infused curries.
The most well-known local champion of South Indian food is likely chef Biju Thomas, who served a fast-casual variety of that fare at his three now-closed Denver locations of Biju’s Little Curry Shop. “Most people think of all Indian food as what they’ve had at local restaurants,” Thomas told 5280 back in 2014. “My food is completely different…[it’s] vibrant, with varying textures and colors; bright, focused flavors; and no cream or butter.” (These days, you can taste Thomas’ cooking and learn from him through his new endeavor, Mixn Match.)
From 1994 to 1997, Kishori Parikh became legend in Denver’s Indian American community for running the now-shuttered Maruti Cafe in Aurora, the first restaurant of its kind in the area where she introduced Coloradans to dosas years before they entered the mainstream American vernacular. “My philosophy was, like McDonald’s, [Indian food] should be less expensive so people could go eat quite often once a week or a couple times a week,” says Parikh, who sold the restaurant in 1997.
The latest addition to the South Indian food scene is the Madras Cafe in Aurora, which opened in August. Owner Zak Khan says that while the restaurant is entirely vegetarian, vegetables are prepared in different forms that are “more edible and tasty” than salad—which is how some folks still stereotype the genre of fare. The Madras Cafe serves dishes from across South India: a spicy okra fry from Andhra Pradesh; a Kerala-style mushroom dish with a coconut base; and a mushroom and onion curry from Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad region.
Khan says that dosas, served with chutneys and sambar (a vegetable and lentil stew), reign as the most popular choice for his customers. But one of the best ways to sample a wide variety of the restaurant’s offerings is via a thali, which is a platter of small servings of a dozen or so dishes. The Madras Cafe’s lunch thali often features unique vegetables used in Indian cooking like squash, taro root, or tindora (a cross between a cucumber and a gourd), which aren’t often found on its everyday menu. It also serves filter coffee in authentic stainless-steel cups; filter kaapi, as it’s known, is a frothy South Indian staple made with an infusion of boiled milk and finely ground coffee.
At 19-year-old Masalaa in Aurora, you’ll find a similar all-vegetarian menu, complete with chitranna (fragrant lemon rice) and thayir sadam, a ginger-spiced yogurt rice that often caps off a South Indian meal.
But the cooking of South India is not just vegetarian. At spots like New Indian Cafe in Greenwood Village and Tiffin’s India Cafe in Boulder, dishes like Madras chicken curry are available alongside staples like dosa and idli. Hyderabad House in Centennial is known for its biryani, a seasoned, mixed basmati rice dish cooked with your choice of ingredients, such as chicken, eggs, goat, or fish. It also usually sells unlimited dosas on Thursday nights (though not currently, during the pandemic) and cooks delicious uttapams, which are thicker, pizza-like dosas with toppings like tomato, onions, and chiles.
All of the above restaurants also serve classic North Indian dishes—chana masala (chickpeas), dal makhani (creamy lentils), and saag/palak paneer (spinach with fresh cheese)—on their menus. Some, like Bawarchi Biryanis, a national chain with three locations in Colorado, also offer dishes like gobi manchurian (crispy cauliflower in a chile sauce) from Indo-Chinese cuisine, which is derived from India’s northeast region.
One of the local Bawarchi franchise co-owners, who requested anonymity and operates Bawarchi locations in Centennial and Louisville, says customers are most surprised by the restaurant’s giant ghee roast dosa—a variety smeared with butter that can be up to three feet long. “There are a lot of Americanized Indian restaurants or Nepali restaurants [in the Denver area],” he says. “We couldn’t find the authenticity of spices or the perfect taste South Indian food must have, so we wanted to bring the fusion of everything.”