At Spice Route, You’ll Travel Well Among the Sinus-Blasting Flavors of South India

And you’ll have plenty of elbow room.

It was a Wizard of Oz moment: My friends and I had been sitting at our table in Spice Route Indian Cuisine in Bellevue, awaiting our meals, marveling at a drab decor inspired by hotel conference rooms and high-school proms. Despite the fact that the place was the size of a football field, its beige walls, black ceiling, and dark-gray carpet made us feel boxed in. Then our entrées arrived—and the grim scene flashed Technicolor. With Smell-O-Vision to boot: The bowls of intensely hued curries were like incense braziers sending out aromas I'd never quite encountered before. In the vermilion "lamb igaru," the soft tang of tamarind announced the fusion of onions and meat and curry leaves, with hot red chiles lurking just beyond. The spices infused into the dandelion-yellow coconut gravy on the "veg Chettinad" were even more fragrant: I noted cloves, cinnamon, mace, and what smelled like dried flowers. We barely looked up from the table again. Spice Route's owner, who would only give his name as "Tom," says his extended family owns restaurants throughout Sri Lanka and India, and for his one-year-old Bellevue masterwork he's pitched the menu to accommodate the entire Eastside desi community. There are southern and northern dishes prepared by two different sets of cooks who use separate dishes for vegetarian and meat food. Plus, all the meat is halal for Spice Route's Muslim customers. In addition, Tom says many of the restaurant's patrons come for the Indo-Chinese food (a big Eastside trend, it seems; I've spotted two other Redmond establishments serving it). But I just can't warm to dishes like gobi manchurian—battered, deep-fried cauliflower wilting in a sticky tomato-ginger sauce. The south Indian food was much more compelling. We ate Spice Route's marvelously poofy idlies (steamed rice cakes) and respectable dosas (giant rice or farina crepes) alongside a tamarind rice that had so many components it required our already-sweating food runner to make two laps back to the kitchen to fetch refills. (The place was so massive that the manager kept a cordless phone in a belt holster to radio the kitchen with questions. Even late on a Friday night, when almost all the tables filled up, the dining room came off as both vacant and impressive.) We mixed together rice, cooked with fried red peanuts and just enough tamarind paste to tart it up, with fresh, spiced milk curds, and scooped the creamy, bland mess up with crisp papadums and bits of sinus-blasting mixed pickle. I intended to order some of the north Indian standards like palak paneer and butter chicken as well. But our skittish waiter seemed more concerned with covering the entire warehouse than helping us pick out dishes. (He mollified us somewhat by assigning our own individual busser, who watched over us like a brooding hen.) In the absence of guidance, we stuck to anything unfamiliar with the word "specialty" printed next to it, and scored big. When I talked to Tom after my visits, most of these specialties turned out to be cuisine from the southern regions of Chettinad and Andhra Pradesh. In fact, over the past decade Chettinad restaurants have enjoyed a popularity in the Indian diaspora akin to America's great Southwestern wave of the 1980s. Bombay, Abu Dhabi, and New Jersey all have Chettinad restaurants, so it makes sense that Bellevue should, too. Not only were the Chettinad specialties opulently spicy, they made a fantastic counterpoint to the serene, 40-varieties-of-starch flavors of the more familiar south Indian fare. Andhra chicken pepper fry had the deep, red-brown color of a good mole, with the same sort of roasted-seed depth of flavor, tinged with the piney overtones of fresh black peppercorns and enough heat to make my forehead sweat. Guttu venkaya kura contained short, round eggplants that had been quartered, stuffed with a paste of spices, and stewed in a creamy, sweet gravy until they melted down. I kept the leftovers around for a few days, unable to finish them off. Instead, every time I passed the refrigerator, I'd reach in and take a whiff. Instant, Technicolor nostalgia.

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