Desi is a colloquial term used by Indians to describe a person of Indian origin. It comes from an official Hindi word meaning “of one’s own country” as opposed to a foreigner, pardesi. When I first arrived in Portland about 15 years ago, we didn’t right away known of any Indian restaurants. Back then, the Portland area wasn’t very diverse and lacking an Indian community. When a couple of Indian restaurants sprang, they ended up being a disappointment because it wasn’t what I usually had. We used to say that when walking into an Indian restaurant, we should first check out the patrons. If we see other Indians, it’s a good sign.
Things have changed a lot. With Portland being a place for foodies, many pardesis now-a-days know about authentic food. So, glancing at the type of patrons is not a good lithmus test. There are many authentic Indian restaurants in the Portland area. From an Indian person who knows what Indian food is supposed to taste like, here’s my list of desi restaurants based on authenticity. And if you are concerned about food being too spicy, you can always request mild or discuss the options with your server.
Chennai Masala, Tanasbourne, Hillsboro. When I first came here, I was excited because in addition to both South Indian and North Indian food, they have Indo-Chinese food. If you have never tried Indo-Chinese food, you have no idea what you are missing out. I have not seen any other desi restaurant in Portland with this variety. Great job Chennai Masala for setting themselves apart from competitors. The place really reminds me of Indian restaurants I visited back home and in Dubai. The food scores very high in authenticity. I was reminded of a stop-over restaurant that I used to visit as a kid whenever my family and I returned to visit relatives.
There is a reason why Chennai Masala receives good reviews and consistently takes a spot in Willamette Week’s Restaurant of the Year’s Top 100 restaurants. Most people are familiar with the popular Mughal dish Tandoori Chicken and Naan bread, which is my favorite too. A popular dish of South India is dosa, a crepe made from rice flour, with chutneys and curries. Also, try their Chicken Tikka Dosa. As for Indo-Chinese, my favorites are Gobi Manchurian (Cauliflower) and Chicken Manchurian. The price isn’t too bad either. If you want to sample them all, your best bet is the lunch buffet for $12.
The atmostphere is casual and best for hanging out with groups or with friends. When I want to introduce people to Indian food, this is where I take them.
East India Company, downtown Portland. For special occasions and dates when you prefer an Indian restaurant that’s quiter and classier in atmostphere, this is the place to go. A few years back, I was on my 3rd visit to East India Company on a date. He wanted to try Indian food and wanted to go to a place that’s nice. He’s much more romantic than me for being into candle-lit dinners. (Then again, most men I run into are more romantic than me). I enjoyed the time with him. The food we arrived in very small serving dishes. I’m talking very small dishes that make you almost feel ripped off. Once you pour the food in your plate, the portion is reasonable. I felt full ordering the lunch special of pakora, rice, and fish curry. He ordered another lunch special with chicken tikka. We ordered naan on the side. The lunch menu is the best deal. The dinner menu tends to hold a higher price point. East India Company also has a bar with Happy Hour of Chaat, Indian snacks, and themed cocktails.
Apna Chat Bhavan, Beaverton. The literal translation is “Our Snack Palace.” Chat or sometimes transliterated as Chaat means savory street food that is typically sold in tea shops or carts. This cafe is next to the Indian grocery store, Apna Bazaar, which means “Our Store.” You can find the typical snacks like samosas, pani puri, bhel puri, and the alike. You can also get pastries, cakes, and Indian sweets like gulab jamun and burfi. There many options if I want something to snack on while grocery shopping. With a few tables, it’s really more like a small coffee shop. It’s not overly impressive but a go-to place when I’m craving a samosa or peda.
From my experience so far, I can say these local restaurants and cafe offers the most authentic Indian food. I don’t go out to Indian restaurants because I cook them at home and I can always go to my mom or visit another Indian person’s home. However, the places I mention comes close to home after trying most Indian restaurants that I know. The restaurants here are rated for authenticity rather than price or service. I had good experiences in all these places though.
I’ll soon check out…
- New Delhi Restaurant.
- Bombay Cricket Club. I visited this a long time ago when I was in middle school with my parents in a big group for a gathering. I will visit again to give my thoughts.
- Dwarka Indian Cuisine.