Watchdog government journalism is often romanticized. There's the dashing Robert Redford -- I mean Bob Woodward -- getting tossed an ochre-colored envelope in a parking garage in Arlington, and unseating a president. There's the flirty, whipsmart Danny Concannon in the West Wing. There's all those attractive people bustling around frantically on HBO's "The Newsroom."
I had a slightly more realistic vision of what covering city hall would be like, but I wouldn't have minded a bit of dramatic flair. In reality, watchdog reporting is done in a dingy office that combines the charms of lean city government and the panache of most newsrooms, which is to say, no panache at all. There are no daily press briefings and no deep-voiced intelligence agents calling up to tip me off.
But within the past month, I got a strong tip from a very reputable source. It was something like this:
"Hey, have you tried Lydiah's? It's really good!"
Lydiah's Coffee House is a cafe that recently opened in an unassuming storefront at the bustling intersection of Grant Street and Boulevard of the Allies. Proprietor/chef/cashier Lydiah, who emigrated from Kenya, serves standard cafe fare -- coffee, tea and muffins -- in a cramped space that holds just a couple of tables.
On the drink menu, you'll find home-brewed ginger beer, Kenyan tea and fresh fruit juice. The meager plastic case that holds pistachio muffins -- made by an outside bakery -- is also home to a variety of unusual items: beef and vegetable samosas and a fried dough treat called mandazi. Then there's also a daily special, which Lydiah makes in batches ahead of time and keeps in steam tables on the counter. Lydiah said that her food is not necessarily of her country of origin. They're more "Lydiah" than Kenyan, she told me.
Judging from the menu, you may recognize some of the flavors -- curry, for example, which is used widely in African cooking. The samosas and chapati are familiar in South Asian cuisine.
On Tuesday, I took along sports writer/eating enthusiast Brady McCollough, who needed some good grub to soothe his hockey heartbreak. We ordered the daily special ($7), on this day a heaping portion of beef braised with vegetables. It came with rice and steamed vegetables. An order of chapati was just another $1.50 and we couldn't resist the mandazi ($1.10) and a vegetable samosa ($1.80).
We both quickly downed the massive portions while enjoying the breeze at one of the tables outside. The stew was a lovely blend of tender chunks of meat with potatoes and peas, in a gently spiced curry gravy. I washed mine down with Kenyan tea ($2 for a small), a slightly bitter, cinnamon-y brew that reminded me of chai. He ordered a mango berry juice ($2.50 for a small), a lip-puckering sweet concoction that took the edge off the spice of the rest of the food.
And the accompanying pastries were positively heavenly. All were wonderfully greasy, including the chapati, which served as a useful tool to sop up the stew's gravy. The veggie samosa was perfectly crispy, stuffed with potatoes yellowed by curry. And the slightly sweet mandazi, which my dining companion described as "sooo good," was an awesome accompaniment to the tea.
But I'm far from a connoisseur of samosas, so for an expert opinion I turned to watchdog reporter Rich Lord, a veteran of deep-dive investigations:
"I've investigated hundreds of samosas in 22 years of enterprise vegetarianism, and this was a unique case. The rather typical facade hid a veritable executive session of vegetables, adding carrots, red peppers and an unusual agenda of spices to the standard potato and peas," he wrote. "Not to minimize my own efforts, but this samosa was anything but tough."
"The conclusion of my six-minute probe: Savoring this samosa on company time creates the appearance of conflict of interest, and has the (admittedly pleasant) aroma of private, non-pecuniary gain. But I'd do it again anyway."
So there you have it. Sources confirm that Lydiah's is, in fact, "really good." "Really good" might be a bit of an understatement. It might even be one of the best lunches you can get Downtown.
Lydiah's Coffee House is at 200 Grant St., Downtown; 412-281-4701 and www.facebook.com/LydiahsCoffeeHouse.
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Moriah Balingit: email@example.com or 412-263-2533.