*Edit* Mar 26, 2009 I think this place is called Dana Mandi / Asian Spice Food. At least, that's what their business card says. I just went here again and will add more thoughts on the new dishes.
So a few classmates recently told me that the best Indian restaurant to try in Philadelphia is actually not a restaurant per se, but rather an unassuming Indian grocery store on 42nd & Chestnut, where you walk to the back and order dishes. A few of my classmates had extremely strong praise for this place, one of them going so far as to say it was the best Indian food he's had *ever*.
"Ever?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes, try it out. I assure you this will be the best Indian food you've ever had."
Granted, this guy didn't know I'm a food geek, but still, this statement wasn't something to be taken lightly.
And I must say the whole idea of food being served where you don't expect it charms me in a certain way. I'm reminded of reading about banh mi being served in a video/underwear store in New York (which I have yet to try, but seems something I'd be utterly enthralled by.)
Anyways, I forgot to take a picture of the outside of the place, so I've shamelessly stolen a photo from Google Maps Street View. Talk about unassuming from the outside.
But the inside is what matters and indeed, the place looks just like a simple Indian grocery store, complete with an aisle full of Instant-cook Indian meals and snacks...
...until you walk a little further and ooh, you see glimpses of an open area, large enough for a few fold out tables and cheap chairs.
I won't reveal the dining area; I think that's actually part of the fun. (Plus, I didn't want us to stick out more than we already did.) Fittingly, there's actually a nice TV, which everyone was watching. You can actually rent a movie from the front of the store and pop it into the tv to watch while you're dining. I totally dig it.
As for the food, we went for "full" versions of the saag paneer and chicken tikka. The full refers to the two sizes of their dishes: full and half. We figured we had trekked out of our way to try this place out; we might as well have some leftovers.
And the food was pretty satisfying, almost in the opposite manner of Tiffin. Whereas Tiffin was the for the corporate crowd, this place seems like an Indian Mom is in the back cooking. The flavors are simpler, natural, and welcoming, yet still very well-done.
Saag Paneer Full size - I was a big fan of this. You can actually taste the spinach and I was bowled over by the fresh cheese. Absolutely loved the cheese.
Salty Lassi Half-sized (Compare it to the size of the plastic cup! How big is their full?!?) I'm not sure whether this was a toned down version or what, but I was surprised by how little spices were in this. It did have a yogurty/creamy flavor, but its flavor was one that perhaps purposely was to take a secondary role to the dishes.
Chicken Tikka Full-size - The chicken was well-cooked, nice and juicy on its own. The accompanying sauce (not in photo) was surprisingly sweet and oddly familiar, in my mind, very similar to the taste of ketchup and relish.
Naan The "waiter" recommended for us to get 4 naan, which ended up being quite large. (We ended up taking half the saag paneer and 2 naan home). The naan didn't stand out, but performed its role as the staple to the dishes.
All in all, would I agree that this was the best Indian food ever? Well, it's really quite difficult to say, since it's kind of like comparing your mom's cooking to a restaurant.
But on some level yes, this was one of the most unique and indelible Indian dining experiences I've had. And I certainly would have no hesitation in returning.
Most of the dishes here were by far the least greasiest, most healthy-feeling Indian food I've ever had. Instead of my usual "I stuffed myself silly, hands over my temporary pot-belly waddle" that I walk out of most Indian restaurants, I walked out of this place feeling quite content.
Add in the fact that you can buy some of the Indian snacks, drinks and supplies at the store and try at home, well it's certainly makes for a damn fun and simply satisfying experience.
PS. The waiter spoke English fluently without an accent, so no worries about language barriers.
Dana Mandi / Asian Spice Food
4205 Chestnut St, Philadelphia, PA (Map)