San Diego Indian Eats: Chennai Tiffins and Sitar
I love Indian food, and on this trip back, I had the pleasure of having two new culinary experiences!
First one came about totally by chance. We had gone to the Persian restaurant Grill House Cafe all the way down Miramar Road near the intersection with 15. It was okay, but we noticed that it was surrounded by a whole bunch of Indian restaurants. This was San Diego’s Little India!
We made a plan to return to a restaurant in the same plaza called Biryani Factory, since we love biryani! But when we came back, we noticed that there was not a single table occupied! Looking across the parking lot, we saw that Chennai Tiffins was a hubbub of activity.
Quite the contrast! It was a full house, and there was even a wait to sit down!
Finally, we got a table, ordered three dishes that looked interesting, and had the waiter choose a fourth one for us after he said that the three we ordered were the ones he would usually recommend.
While waiting for our food, we went over to a little buffet where there was a cauldron of dal. This was super spicy! There were also various chutneys to take: there was a cilantro one, a peanut one, and a tomato one if I remember correctly.
Then our first dish came out: the Gobi Manchuria, deep fried cauliflower sautéed with a spicy sauce. This is in the canon of Indian-Chinese recipes, so it resembles General Tso’s chicken taste-wise, texturally, and visually. It was delicious! The fried coating was crispy and gave a good chew when combined with the wet sauce. We were tempted to order seconds.
We also ordered Chole Batura, which was this puffy, deep fried bread served with a bowl of chana masala (chickpea curry). The puffy bread was nice and flaky, but while it wasn’t greasy by fried food standards, it’s hard to avoid some oiliness simply due to being fried.
We also got a Spinach Masala Dosa, which was a giant dosa with a little clump of spinach and potato in the middle. The dosa was nice and crispy, but no matter how many times I eat dosas and understand that this is just the way it is, but I still hope for more filling!
The waiter recommended the “Special Rava Masala Dosa,” described as a “crispy crepe made of cream of wheat and rice flour with masala on [the] side.” This was my favorite of the bunch, Mainly because the there were tiny bits of red onion embedded in the dough, which gave an extra-savory twist. I also liked the slightly more crunchy, brittle texture here. It was served with a tiny bowl of potato masala.
We were the only table of non-Indians in the restaurant, and I looked on in awe at the people around me tearing off small pieces of the dosas and scooping up bites of the accompaniments with just the right hand!
One thing that I noticed that just about every table ordered were mounds of something white, which kind of had the appearance of rice pudding or cottage cheese. We asked the waiter what it was, and it turned out to be yogurt rice. Maybe that helps with the spiciness! Something to order next time…
The very next day, we wanted to go somewhere close, and fast, and decided upon… Indian again! But this wasn’t the South Indian cuisine of dosas, it was Indian buffet with various curries and tandoori chicken. What made this buffet really special was how “secret” it felt!
Sitar Indian Cuisine is located in the food court at the “Towers at Sorrento” plaza, where Mira Mesa Boulevard becomes Sorrento Valley Road as it crosses 805. The food court seems to serve the offices nearby, like Qualcomm and Sony, so the eateries are actually closed on Saturdays. Except for Sitar, when it transforms from a takeout counter into a buffet restaurant!
To be honest, I was rather apprehensive when I entered. The lights were turned off in the indoor food court, and a set of warming trays were set up on folding tables to one side. There weren't covers or a sneeze guard set up. And there were just a few people standing around, but no one eating at around 7:15pm. How fresh could the food be, and how sanitary could it be?
I felt the urge to leave, but my mom had already chatted up the owner, so it felt a bit awkward to do so. So we took our trays, disposable plates, and styrofoam cups, and got started down the buffet line. Starting around then, one large Indian family after another came in, a non-Indian family entered to eat, and a single Asian guy too, who seemed to seek out the darkest corner of the food court to eat by himself!
Once I took one bite, the choice to stay was vindicated. Those little burners under the warming trays really did a remarkable job of keeping the food hot! And since these types of curries - saag paneer, chana masala, chicken tikka masala - usually require long preparation times, extra minutes on a warming tray doesn’t really affect the quality to much. The items that were more sensitive to freshness, I saw the staff replenishing regularly: fresh baked naan, tandoori chicken, and huge samosas. And little paper dishes of what seemed like papdi chaat - a salad of crunchy crackers - were made on the spot. This was all comfort food at its finest!
Even after a full first plate, I still got seconds. And for dessert, they had a whole tray of kheer (rice pudding). A creamy end to a very satisfying meal!
I’d been to Sitar before just to order off the menu, but I’ll definitely look to return to the buffet in the future, because buffets are conducive to trying out more dishes. And I would love to return to Chennai Tiffin to have that Gobi Manchuria again, and try other dishes from their extensive menu. They have a lunch thali that seems would be good to try too. I’m happy to learn that there are actually two other Chennai Tiffins in Southern California, one in Artesia and one in Woodland Hills, which means that the restaurant is a strong business.
I feel super lucky that San Diego has such a thriving Indian community, which helps support a diverse selection of Indian restaurants!