Sometimes I drive up N Mississippi on my way home from work, rather than stay on I-5. It’s not faster. I do it because at least that way I’ll be moving, instead of sitting stationary, inhaling bus exhaust and the caustic breath screamed from the lungs of my fellow road ragers.
Until last year, I’d add a regular stop on my commute home to hit Bridge City Comics and read at the food cart pod across the street. More often than not, I’d get a comically large “Hot Chick” or “Studly Spud” dosa from Tiffin Asha.
It’s hard to explain how unwieldy those to-go dosas were. They were a trick: a pile of pakora-fried chicken or potatoes and other fillings rolled in an enormous crispy sourdough crepe. The filling is all in the middle, the ends are empty, and the whole thing is cut in half and wrapped in paper—traveling with it was like realizing halfway through your tightrope walk that a rival acrobat had sabotaged your act.
There wasn’t much more on the menu at the cart: “vada holes,” a little sweet/savory doughnut of fried dal, sprinkled with coconut and chili; idli, steamed dal and rice cakes, with a uniform white color and spongy texture that seems cut out for the “oddly satisfying” ASMR videos Instagram’s always recommending (or is that just for me?); a house chai and lassi to drink. Sambar, a savory vegetable stew with a sneaky spiciness, came with almost everything. A brunch menu also popped up (dosas with eggs).
Service is not something you typically think too much about at a cart, but at Tiffin Asha, the hospitality was remarkable: The smiling face in the cart window was almost always Sheila Bommakanti, partner in life and business to chef Elizabeth Golay. Bommakanti has a vibe I can only describe as a vibe, an energy you’d have to call an energy. This is some good old-fashioned West Coast chillness.
Then—the cart pod vanished.
The jump from cart to restaurant is usually more of a hop than a leap. Tiffin Asha took the leap: full table service in a romantically dark, thoughtfully designed space on the ground floor of a condo complex. From the lighting to the tableware, the look of the place is dialed in: subtle, solid, idiosyncratic. (Dig the metal water cups or the adorable glass bottle the banana yogurt lassi [$4.50] is served in.) That said, what I don’t understand is the seating: metal folding chairs low enough to the ground that I, at 6’4”, have learned to ask for one of the high stools along one window.
The cart’s entire menu (except brunch) is still available, but makes up only half or a third of the new menu. Beer and wine are here, but (save for a $3.50 bottle of delightfully bland Indian lager Kingfisher) feel like an afterthought compared to the food. Cocktails would be more suited to some of the complexity on the menu, especially if the rumors of brunch come true. (Honestly, even a window offering the vada holes, $8 with sambar and chutney, and house chicory coffee, $3.50, would be a perfect weekday breakfast option, too.)
Golay’s food is theatrically pretty, and while, like the best street fare, it always popped—even on a wooden bench—it’s now getting the spotlight it deserves. Not to mention some room to stretch out: Careful how quickly you order here, as the dishes are large—portions are generous, but I mean the literal dishes that the food is served on are enormous. Two guests can quickly find themselves in a race to clear space for the next plate.
The Hot Chick ($14.50) is arguably still the draw, though it now has quite a bit more competition: The chicken pakora also comes on its own ($9), in a large portion with the same cardamom-infused honey and sea salt that’s in the Hot Chick. (Miraculously, the honey here even pleased the Mercury’s own Andrea Damewood, famed hater of “surprise honey.”) A tamarind and lentil soup called charu ($10), served with rice and coconut cream, is maybe one of the only dishes I’ve ever had that makes tamarind feel like a star.
You have to tear a lot of this apart with your hands, which means you’re especially aware of textures and colors. The appam, a spongy rice/coconut pancake, is surrounded by a crisp edge of delicate tendrils rising inches off the plate; the dosas have intricate, crepey striations throughout (and a complex flavor to match—unlike a slice of bread, a tortilla, or a French crepe, these dosas offer enough that they’re more food than vehicle for food); the dipping chutneys and “gun powder” spice mixtures are paint-commercial colorful. Even the peanuts are mixed with seeds and chilis so goddamn gorgeous that if they weren’t actually delicious (spicy, dry, oily but not dripping, $2), I’d suspect they were arranged for the sole purpose of becoming an iPhone wallpaper.
Sometimes that tactile sensation is straight-up confusing. Maybe my Anglo is showing, but I’m still unable to eat big hunks of squash out of a sambar bowl with either the crispy, smooth dosa or the fragile, spongy appam. It’s odd that almost everything comes with sambar—not only is it too much, but it puts some sticker shock on the price of, say, the vada holes and idli (both $8 with sambar and chutney), which don’t need a bowl of stew beside them to be attractive. And is a spoon—you get two, but no fork or knife—the best way to split up and eat a skewer of meat? (Get the pork meatball one, served on cashew butter and topped with vibrantly yellow candied kumquats [$11]. Eat it however you want.)
Luckily, Bommakanti’s come-as-you-are, hey-man-how-are-you vibe vibe has translated almost seamlessly to the table service model. Barring only a few occasions, every server I’ve encountered at Tiffin Asha (often Bommakanti herself) has the rare ability to unpretentiously and uncondescendingly explain a dish of food and the best method for eating it. This may be one of the highest hurdles for table service, and Tiffin Asha clears it with ease.
Tiffin Asha is decidedly not the food cart it once was: Hours are down to 5-10 pm Thursday to Monday, and price increases of almost 100 percent on some dishes clearly reflect new overheads. But it’s now a destination—the feeling of hospitality that once floated through that window only to dissipate on N Mississippi is finally allowed to fill a proper space. But turning a space into a place is a hard thing to do, and it’s heartening to see that Golay and Bommakanti have been able to do it, whether with 1000 square feet or 50.
Thurs-Mon 5-10 pm, accepts reservations.