If there’s one thing Asha Gomez has taught us, it’s that Indian food is more than fiery curries and mango lassis. We saw that in 2011 when she opened her first restaurant, Cardamom Hill, where she served the tropical, beefy fare of her home state of Kerala. (Like many there, Gomez was raised Catholic, so cows are fair game.) Sadly, even with praise from Bon Appétit and the James Beard Foundation, she had to shut her doors last July. Gomez didn’t miss a step, though; four days later, she opened the more casual—and smaller—Spice to Table in the Old Fourth Ward. She’s still busy as ever, but because the restaurant is only open until 4 p.m., she’s always home in time for dinner. What does she eat? To find out, I asked Gomez to take me on a tour of some of her favorite Indian spots around town.
Our first stop is Chat Patti off Briarcliff Road for a thali, a lunchtime platter loaded with curried chickpeas simmered in onions and tomatoes, boiled potatoes with fresh peas, and a stack of roti (the soft tortilla of India), all served around a mound of rice. We’re missing one more vegetable and a dessert—they aren’t ready yet—but that hardly matters. “One of these is enough for me, my son, and my ex-husband,” Gomez says. “Every time we eat here, I wonder how they can charge only $9.99.”
It boils down to low overhead. Most Indian restaurants are found in out-of-the-way strip malls, where rents are cheap and parking is plentiful. In Atlanta’s case, that’s about two miles north of downtown Decatur, where Indian grocery stores, herbal shops, and restaurants line the roads. Gomez adds that mom-and-pop restaurants, like Chat Patti, also rely on family to help out (for free, most likely).
We then drive north to Al-Amin off Buford Highway. Gomez points to all the beef dishes on the menu, a sign that the owners are Muslim and Bengali. We order the beef biryani, a dish as special and as regional to Indians as barbecue is to Southerners. This aromatic rice dish is traditionally made in large pots filled with coals and lowered into a pit. Al-Amin’s is complex and subtly spiced with saffron. But the kitchen has sent out another dish, one that we didn’t order: chicken tikka masala. “See, they think that’s what you want,” Gomez says. “I can’t stand this dish. It’s not even Indian.” It’s actually British, but to many, it now represents the culinary achievement of India’s 29 states home to more than 1.2 billion people practicing at least six major religions.
From Al-Amin, we head back to Decatur to Luqma, a popular midnight destination for cab drivers. Gomez’s nine-year-old son, Ethan, is particularly fond of the place because of the Bollywood movies playing in the dining room. Gomez is more into the goat brain masala that reminds me of squash casserole (in a good way) and the haleem: a hearty porridge made with lentils, beef, and barley cooked down into a paste-like consistency. Muslims in India often break the fast with it during Ramadan, but after a squirt of lemon and a sliver of raw onions, I’d breakfast with it every day if I could.
Next, it’s onward to Gokul Sweets & Restaurant. Like some of the others, it’s in a shopping center—this one home to a popular grocery store, Patel Brothers. We’ve come for the panipuri, a popular street snack that’s basically a single-bite fried puff filled with chutneys, vegetables, and an herby liquid tinged with heat from the green chiles. There’s also a masala dosa, a fermented crepe that’s long and wide like a PVC pipe and filled with soft, spicy potatoes.
By this point, we’re stuffed—practically lulled into submission—but we press on: whole tandoori chicken at Georgia Halal Meat & Catering. It’s conveniently a few doors down, and Gomez called two hours prior to place our order. The butcher shop doesn’t have any tables inside, so we take the bird outside and eat on the nearest makeshift table: the hood of her car. At this point it starts to rain, but we hardly notice. In 10 minutes, we devour that chicken, which cost just under $11 but could go for double that, at least, in any restaurant.
One more bite: malai kulfi at Zyka. It’s India’s version of ice cream that gets churned in a clay pot and is distinctly rich with cream and scented with cardamom. Gomez is lactose intolerant, but even she can’t resist. “I could probably eat this until I died.”
1594 Woodcliff Drive NE
What to order thali
5466 Buford Highway NE, 470-375-4078
WHhat to order beef biryani
Luqma Indo-Pak Restaurant
1706 Church Street, Decatur
What to order haleem, goat brain masala
Gokul Sweets & Restaurant
1709 Church Street, Decatur
What to order panipuri, masala dosa
Georgia Halal Meat & Catering
1707 Church Street, Decatur, 404-254-4651
What to order tandoori chicken
1677 Scott Boulevard, Decatur
What to order malai kulfi