Favorite Tamil & South Indian restaurants of the SF Bay Area

By now, I have visited enough Tamil & other South Indian restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area to have some favorites (and not-so-favorites).  Here are my favorites, “honorable mentions”, footnotes, and disclaimers.  Enjoy!

Favorites

Most of these top restaurants are in the South Bay area (Moutain View / Sunnyvale / Milpitas) unless otherwise specified.

  • Annachikadai (அண்ணாச்சிக்கடை) – I think this is not only the best Tamil restaurant in the Bay Area, but I’m going to call it and say it’s the best in the US.  Best in the US & Canada, ha!  When you up to the front door, you are greeted first by the smell of a kitchen or restaurant in Tamil Nadu.  The authenticity is evident in the food (quality and taste), intention (offer authentic menu items beyond the overplayed standard Tamil restaurant fare), and ambience (modest digs, and servers racing to handle customer demands).  The restaurant only opened 3 months ago, and it was a soft launch (no announcements or advertising whatsoever), and even 1.5 months afterwards — when I found it — the place is always packed.  It was hard to find a table during off-hours (4pm in the afternoon) on a Saturday.  They offer veg & non-veg food, and have an unlimited saapppaadu option for $13/$14. Every item on the menu is done well, without being too spicy or too greasy.  Ex: they make paniyaaram (குழிப் பனியாரம்) and do so just right without making it greasy / overly oily.  They reflect their Southern Tamil Nadu background by offering items saalnaa (சால்னா), but YMMV.  The only thing I want out of this place is to have it bigger — bigger menu, more seating, more servers, more traditional grains (சிறுதானியம்) more deserved acclaim.
  • Madras Cafe – This place is the go-to Tamil restaurant in the Bay Area.  It’s probably where everyone else would tell you to go first.  It’s so busy that their counter-serve style is more like a necessity to get the turnover to keep up with the crowds.  And the crowds during normal meals crowd the little lobby area and spill outside the front door like a TN bus.  The chutneys are all top-notch — they’re the only place that makes couriander/cilantro chutney well enough to make me forget that I don’t naturally like the taste of couriander.  They make the best vadai I’ve had outside of Tamil Nadu, by far.  All of their food is vegetarian, but they excel in idli (இட்லி), thosai (தோசை) and vadai (வடை) less so on pongal (வெண் பொங்கல் / kothu parotta (கொத்து பரோட்டா) They open at 8:30am.  For the longest time, this place has been my favorite, and is still pretty close in quality.  Only in the last year have I noticed some slight drop in sambar (சாம்பார்) quality (more watery/oily than I remember) and eating an onion oothappam (வெங்காயம் ஊத்தப்பம்) made my stomach not feel so good afterwards.  Prices used to be the lowest here, but they only recently went up ever so slightly.  I still highly recommend, but if you go during normal hours and dislike waiting in lines as much as I do, there are other options that you can find.
  • Madurai Modern Cafe – I think this place is new, perhaps opened in the past few months, too.  From the name, it seems to be emulating Madras Cafe, and because it’s newer and not in a typical commercial area, the prices are lower, the wait is much shorter, but the food is just as good.  They are also open 7 days a week, including Mondays.  It’s run by a husband-wife couple with the kids hanging around in the evenings, and if you’re a willing participant, the little one’s mischief is entertaining.  All of their food is solid, although perhaps the kuruma is a little bit oily.  Nothing is bad.  Also note that they don’t serve parotta, in case you see it on a menu or in the pictures in the storefront window.
  • Tirupathi Bhimas – This is a nice go-to place.  They really treat this restaurant like a transplant of a typical restaurant (aka “hotel”) in Tamil Nadu.  No frills, plenty of seating with fast service and fast turnaround.  It’s all about the food here.  Everything is vegetarian and good.  The saappaadu meal (சோறு சாப்பாடு aka “thali”) is $10 but not unlimited, unlike the $13-16 unlimited options in other places, but you’ll probably be full if you clean your plate here.  One thing that they do here better than most is their thayir vadai (தயிர் வடை – vadai dipped in yogurt) because they put extra stuff in the thayir to make it interesting, like ginger (இஞ்சி).  By comparison, Madras Cafe’s vadai would have the ginger in the vadai, and other places don’t attempt ginger in vadai or yogurt, probably because it’s hard to pull off.
  • Amaravathi – this is a Telugu (Andhra/Telangana) restaurant, and I found it because it is close to Madras Cafe, with similar menu items, a not-too-high level of chili spice, and has plenty of seating whenever I go there.  All of the food is vegetarian.   The thosai, idli, sambar, pongal, chutneys, etc. should be pretty much the same as the Tamil style (except their idli, which isn’t as soft, but oh well).  The reason is that one of their chefs is from Tamil Nadu.  Only their kuruma and parotta are markedly different than the Tamil style (and so-so for me).  Getting the unlimited rice meal (“thali”) is way too much food to finish even before refills, unless you plan to go there after a crazy 30 mile bike ride or intense weight lifting.  Their prices are fairly low, and in terms of value, it’s probably the best.  You get very full off $10 of food.  Up until now, breakfast was tricky because all items start around $5.50-6, so how do you not overeat?  Last weekend, I noticed that they recently introduced an $8 all you can eat breakfast buffet – idli, vadai, pongal, sambar, chutneys (coconut, tomato, peanut, ginger), made-to-order plain thosai, and kesari (கேசரி) sweet.  That’s the sweet spot missing in breakfast — I can make my own “combo” order in ways that the menu would not easily allow w/o over-ordering, so this might be the new go-to for breakfast.  They close on Tuesdays instead of Mondays, and only open for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays.
  • Didigul Thalaipakatti – This is the latest popular Tamil Nadu restaurant chain to open a branch in the Bay Area.  Like the other chains, they seem to go for the “Chettinadu” style of food – lots of non-veg offerings, and spicier than average for Tamil Nadu.  The food here is spicier than the other Tamil restaurants above in my list, but not as spicy as a typical Telugu restaurant (in which category I put Mangoes as well as the recent offerings from the local Ananda Bhavan and Saravana Bhavan branches).  This place specializes in biriyani (பிரியாணி), which they do well, and they also do kothu parotta really well.  Their vegetarian offerings are good but limited in seletion.  For a modestly priced Tamil restaurant, the decor is really modern and the bathrooms are relatively clean, especially compared to most other comparable restaurants.  This place can get busy, and is open 7 days a week.
  • RASA – The chef who created the menu for the SF trendy thosai-themed restaurant called Dosa — left Dosa in SF to start his own swanky restaurant in Burlingame.  The menu is similar in terms of “fusion thosai” and other Tamil fusion items, the location is compact and super-clean.  All of the food is of high quality.  The restaurant earned 1 star from the Michelin guide, so you can imagine that it’s on the slightly expensive side.  If you like a fine-dining experience, interesting combinations like truffle oil thosai, and/or reliably clean, well-maintained bathrooms, there’s no competition here.

Honorable Mentions

  • Bezawada – This Telugu restaurant, in terms of food, is actually quite amazing.  Which explains why they have 3 locations already.  The fish was amazing.  My initial draw here is their unlimited thali, which is really similar to a Tamil Nadu soru saappaadu thali meal in terms of taste.  It’s $16 and it’s way too much food.  But it’s nice when you come with a group because they just leave the buckets of sambar and rasam on your table.  (The buckets are smaller and cleaner than what you get in a modest restaurant or special occasion meal line (பந்தி) in Tamil Nadu.)  The spice level is elevated compared to Tamil Nadu, as is to be expected.  My Yelp-level nit-picky gripe is that the service was bafflingly negligent or strange.  Only the discovery of Annachikadai’s version of unlimited rice meals supplanted the spot that Bezawada had for me in the list of top places.
  • Arusuvai – (Note: not related to the Arusuvai restaurants on the East Coast, apparently, fwiw)  This is an independent (non-franchise) restaurant fitting into the category of Chettinadu-style non-veg & veg.  I really liked this place when it opened a few months ago, and the non-veg is still fairly good, but some parts of veg food have become suspect.  I still like the place, and I should probably leave them a note on Yelp so that they step up their level of quality back to what it used to be.
  • the vegetable dosai at Vik’s Chaat Cafe – if you’re closer to Berkeley than any of the other places, and you need idli / thosai and not much else, then go here.  Otherwise, you’ll find simple food with a North Indian flare, as “chaat” implies.  The one thing that this place does well is that the vegetables that they put into the vegetable thosai are cooked like a Tamil Nadu-style “poriyal” (பொரியல்) satuee before being put inside, and there are no starchy potatoes, etc. used as filler.

Footnotes

  • I don’t understand all the 4/5 reviews on Yelp for the good Tamil restaurants, but half of them sound like they don’t know what to expect (like they’ve never eaten in Tamil Nadu before) or they’re just overly fussy.  Who’s more particular about food than SF hipsters writing Yelp reviews?  Just about any South Indian adult I’ve met who talks about South Indian food.  Except they’re focus is all about the food, not about BS demerits for ambience and service.
  • Many restaurants are closed on Mondays
  • Many restaurants close between lunch and dinner hours.  Many restaurants aren’t open for breakfast.

Disclaimers

  • I no longer enjoy trying to eat the spiciest food possible.  My level of spice tolerance is perhaps average for Tamil Nadu, and certainly low by Telugu / Tamil Eelam / Korean standards.
  • There isn’t much of a eating-out culture in India — that may be a reflection of economics — but either way, there currently isn’t a culture around customer service, let alone hygiene, let alone bathroom cleanliness.  I wish all of these restaurants emphasized that more
  • I like it when restaurants in the Bay Area put a sink for washing hands outside of the bathroom.  It makes it easier for people who eat with their hands, and this is standard in homes and many public eating places that I’ve seen in Tamil Nadu.

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