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Globe-trotting to India 

The Global Mall's food court offers a kaleidoscopic taste of Indian cuisine

Food courts are typically the purgatorial pit stops of the restaurant industry. They materialize in shopping centers across the country with homogeneous ubiquity: Slick signs advertise all-American junk food and dumbed-down ethnic eats with neon urgency. Obviously disgruntled employees pump out orders, barely smiling as they hand over steeply priced soft drinks. Hungry shoppers don't consider where their pre-fabricated pizza or Cajun shrimp comes from. They simply wander among the streamlined, mediocre eateries in a dazed quandary. So many choices. Free sample of chicken or warm pretzel, anyone?

The food court at the Global Mall just off Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85, however, is something else altogether.

If you scour the breadth of the Global Mall's winding pathways, you can find shops whose owners represent several different nationalities. But it's immediately evident as you ride the escalator to the mall's main floor that the bulk of the shopkeepers hail from India. There's a sari shop filled with glittery fabrics, a funky furniture store, a place that sells silver Indian jewelry and a DVD rental store named, not surprisingly, Planet Bollywood.

You can gaze at the cheesy mug shots of Bollywood's most famous actors while you chow. The food court is right across the way. The modest accommodations (wobbly tables, simple signage) might not lure you in like a flashy Johnny Rockets marquee would, but mighty fine eats can be had here nonetheless.

The cloister consists of five dining options:four Indian and one Caribbean. God - or in this case, Krishna - bless the Caribbean spot. It wasn't busy during any of my three visits. I skipped it, too. Like the rest of the crowd, I was there to sup on Indian food.

There's little overlap in the variations each place serves: You've got South Indian, Indian-Chinese, chat (Indian snacks) and North Indian/grill dishes. I noticed most folks ordered a couple of dishes from two or three places, a strategy worth emulating. For not much money you can have a cross-continental feast.

A soft-spoken young woman with glasses oversees the counter at Sai Chat, which is always my first stop after roving and considering each of the food court's options. Think of the Bombay-style street snacks served here as Indian tapas: small (albeit paper) plates full of kitchen-sink compositions that crunch and soothe in the same bite. Bhel puri crackles with crisp chips of poori bread, puffed rice, chunks of potatoes, minced onions and the occasional bit of tomato - all of which is slathered with cilantro and tamarind chutneys. Chole bhatura pairs spiced chickpeas with a voluminous, irresistible waft of hot, fried bread.

The contents of karachi chat, a special, are buried underneath so much yogurt and chutney that you have to just stick your spoon in and scoop to find the vada (potato cake), chickpeas and miniature poori crackers. But the contrast of sweet and sour with hot and cold makes for glorious, goopy overkill.

Sai Chat offers a thali - the multifaceted platter of rice, bread, dhal and vegetable curries with condiments. Most of the dishes on the day I tried it proved dishearteningly haphazard. Lentils were bland and muddy, gulab jamin more cakey than fudgy. And you want to be careful what you order from the chat list since the dishes can get repetitive. I ended up throwing away a pebbly quarry of chickpeas.

What you don't want to miss here are the wacky drinks. They're worth trying for the pure, intrepid fun of it. I love how the "juices" are loaded with stuff other than juice (the lychee flavor lists "aroma" among its ingredients).

But the strangest discovery is a soda called Rim Zim, the bottle of which proudly states that it's "a product of the Coca-Cola Company." Apparently, Rim Zim was marketed in India and never quite took off. After tasting it, you can see why. The first sensation to hit your palate is salt, followed by a whiff of stinging, curry-like spice. Yeah, it's kinda gross, though I discovered its secret: If you take sips of Rim Zim while eating, the Indian seasoning cancels out the soda's curry-ish taste and you can ascertain a clear note of Coca-Cola flavor. Freaky.

On to Sri Krishna Vilas, the South Indian counter that features lovely, lithe dosa crepes. I scanned the offerings to find an offbeat variation and came upon kara masala ghee dosa. The inside of the crepe is brushed with a fiery spice mixture and clarified butter, which gives the edges of the dosa extra crispiness. The stuffing is the traditional fluffy mound of spiced potatoes, though they serve a unique tamarind-ginger chutney alongside the classic coconut chutney. "Good for the digestion," noted the grandfatherly figure who took my order.

And I'd never before tried pesarattu, a dosa variant made with green gram, an Indian bean that indeed lends the crepe a verdant hue. Pesarattu is typically stuffed with upma, a savory semolina porridge softly spiced with black mustard seeds and cumin.

Sai Chat and Sri Krishna Vilas are both exclusively vegetarian, so for a little meat action, you need to look to the other vendors. Unfortunately, much of the food at Chinese Rasoi, despite its Indian overtones, suffers from the scourge of fast-food Chinese: brown sauce. The meat and vegetable dishes were asphyxiated in it. Hakka noodles, a staple of this kind of cooking, barely possessed more brawn than packaged ramen.

But I did find some treats: Crispy lamb in Peking sauce managed to retain its texture, and an appetizer called "bullet chicken" proved to be nibbly bits of poultry dry-cooked in a heady marinade of garlic, onions and ginger.

Curry on the Go, offering Indian grill food, was the last place I hit. Sectioned off from the others by a glass enclosure, I suppose it qualifies as a freestanding restaurant. It was also my least favorite option.

Saucy dishes slowly drying out in a steam table didn't exactly stimulate my appetite, particularly with so much intriguing fare to fill up on elsewhere. The sullen young lad behind the counter didn't mutter more than two-word answers when I questioned him about the selection. I wound up with matar paneer that was filled out with more potato than peas and cheese, a greasy eggplant number and decent lamb biryani. I didn't plan on returning.

Then an Indian friend tipped me off to Curry's best dish: the mixed chicken grill. Dyed with a year's supply of food coloring, the different preparations (green cilantro, scarlet tikka masala, yogurt-marinated, and a feisty pink, sausage-like kebab) do blend in nicely with a table full of Bombay snacks and masala dosas.

But at the Global Mall, the vegetarian selections are clearly stronger than their carnivorous counterparts. How many food courts can you say that about?

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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