At All India in Oakland, a lanky server in a white button-down delivers a plate of bhel puri, the first course of a diner's lunch.
Thin, fried noodles called sev join warm, puffed rice that snaps and pops like the famous cereal. Red onion, cilantro and chutney add texture and flavor to potatoes and tomatoes. Fresh lemon juice and garlic complement a super-fragrant garam masala of bay leaves, coriander, star anise, cardamom, fenugreek, cumin and chili.
It's a starter from the "Chaat Corner," an array of street snacks such as papdi chaat with crackers, chickpeas, yogurt, chutney and tamarind. Doughnut-shaped lentil cakes, dhahi vada chaat, arrive with tiny bowls of similar condiments.
Demand for Indian cuisine
All India is one of two Indian restaurants to open in Oakland within a month. Mavin Kohli opened Yuva India in the former Star of India space on South Craig in April, having recently relocated to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C., after working at upscale grocer Dean & DeLuca.
All India and Yuva India have debuted in response to a demand within Oakland and beyond. As the Indian population grows around the region and Pittsburghers embrace international cuisine, restaurants such as these are seeing brisk business with a ready crowd of regulars, from students to hospital workers to Indian food fans.
It helps that the restaurants offer big flavors for a low price.
At All India, a lunch buffet features an array of dishes such as the roasted baby eggplant in baingan bharta or the spinach, cheese and herbs in palak paneer for $9. It also includes requests by regulars, such as the Bombay street food pav bhaji, a spicy, buttery vegetable mash served with slabs of homemade bread.
Away from the buffet table, All India features a vast menu of dosa rice crepes served over three plates; Indian sandwiches called Kathi rolls; thali platters of daal, vada, rice and vegetables; as well as tandoori items cooked in one of two of the restaurant's clay ovens.
In the dining room, workers from a nearby hospital dressed in scrubs share a sharp vindaloo and a fish curry mellowed by roasted spices. Over the bar, an Indian newscast plays on a muted TV. The background sound comes from pulsey Indipop on Pandora.
Having opened in March, All India is the newest restaurant from Didar Singh, who at one time owned India Gardens in Oakland and Monroeville, as well as several fusion restaurants. He has since sold all of them, maintaining only Bombay Food Market, where he sells groceries including Indian flours, his homemade spice blend, and an array of lentils, whole or split, with or without the shell.
A native of north India and the father of two boys, ages 7 and 9, Mr. Singh and his wife, Manjit Kaur, were inspired to open a straightforward Indian restaurant that also speaks to south Indian tastes. This is a departure from India Garden, which offered predominantly northern fare.
Dishes from the north and south
The north, said Mr. Singh, features more meat and curries, chutneys, pickles and fried foods. Southern Indian dishes offer more vegetarian items and often include curry leaves and coconut milk. Dosas are from the south, where more rice dishes are featured.
Mr. Singh's chef has something to do with the prominence of south Indian fare on the menu. Having worked for Mr. Singh for more than four years, the young, talented Tamil Arora wanted to cook dishes that reminded him of home.
With a tussle of black hair and a green Texas T-shirt, Mr. Arora plates chicken sangrilla biryani that's spicy hot and looks it, topped with a fried egg, common in south Indian cuisine but virtually absent in the north.
Behind him in a clay oven, Mr. Arora tosses a serving of naan against a 400-degree wall. A very wet dough allows it to stick. The edges brown and bubble as if it's coming to life. As it cools, a cook brushes bread with butter before serving.
Hot or not?
While All India sits a block up from Legume's destination dining, Yuva India is the smaller, storefront Indian restaurant on a strip that includes a boutique, two coffee shops and the Caliban Book Shop.
Yuva India's owner, Mr. Kohli, is from the Punjab region of India. He landed briefly in Boston, then headed to Washington before deciding on Pittsburgh as home. "It's easy to live here. It's not very large, but it's a comparable city in terms of resources and amenities," he said.
A total buildout has transformed the space into a lean, modern dining room decorated with photos of Indian street life. A revamped kitchen employs a coal-fired tandoori.
Mr. Kohli's menu is "primarily from the north," including a Punjabi lamb shank with "an unusual spice blend," he said, though he and his chefs have listed a handful of items from around the country.
He has opted not to include a buffet because he believes it "cheapens Indian food," he said.
"There is so much involved in creating a dish. A buffet does not allow for the same flavors as a dish created to order."
The most popular lunch so far is the Yuva Lunch of chicken tikka masala and lamb vindaloo with basmati rice, salad and bread for $9.95. The popular lunch will remain, though menus will change for the season in about a month, he said.
The summer menu will become available as the weather heats up. It's built on the idea that very hot food helps diners stay cool on sultry days.
He will introduce a very spicy "bullet naan" of bread stuffed with hot peppers and the "nuclear curry challenge," spiked with the searingly hot bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost chili that's the second hottest chili in the world behind the Trinidad moruga scorpion.
As students, professors, neighborhood residents and Indian food aficionados make their way to the new restaurant, Mr. Kohli is still puzzled by the 1 to 10 heat index diners in Pittsburgh seem to expect.
"It's not very authentic," he said, noting the Indian way is for a diner to indicate whether he or she wants a dish "a little" or "medium-spicy," he said.
Medium-spice isn't enough for some diners, including Mr. Kohli, who is among those undaunted by ghost-pepper curry.
Some like it hot, indeed.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart