Indian menus can be intimidating. Without a ton of familiarity, it’s easy to settle for perennial favorites like butter chicken and samosas. But playing it safe with Indian food is a huge mistake; it’s a country with 29 different states, each with its own signature dishes and cuisine. And the good news is, you don’t have to sit on a 15 hour flight to experience them -- many of the best Indian dishes can be found in different neighborhoods across New York City.
For years, Little Bombay in the East Village, and Jackson Heights, in Queens dominated NYC’s Indian food scene. These days, most of it is concentrated in what’s known as Curry Hill, a stretch of Indian restaurants along Lexington Avenue in Murray Hill, and across the river in Jersey City -- but in the last year, NYC has also seen a crop of new trendy Indian restaurants that skew slightly more upscale, like Babu Ji, Indian Accent, and Paowalla.
Below are the 10 dishes you need to add to your Indian food repertoire ASAP -- from pav bhaji to rasgulla -- and exactly where you can find the best versions.
Babu JiAddress and Info
At his popular East Village spot, chef Jesse Singh is an impressive lot of Punjabi favorites, the standout being his version of a yogurt kebab -- a dish you truly can't find anywhere else in New York. While the idea of turning yogurt into a kebab-like dish might sound impossible, the end product is a beautiful, crunchy yet creamy vegetarian appetizer that’s bursting with color. To make it, Singh strains yogurt that’s been mixed with fresh green chili and green cardamom powder. The hung yogurt is then pan-fried and served over a bright pink sauce made from beetroot, green chili, and fresh ginger.
DhabaAddress and Info
Curry Hill, the stretch of Lexington Ave that runs straight through Murray Hill, is nicknamed as such because it's rife with Indian restaurants -- the best of which may be Dhaba. The restaurant, which translates to “roadside stall,” serves a large menu of Punjabi dishes like makki di roti (a flat cornbread) and unda -- or egg -- curry. While those are both absolutely worth ordering, do not pass on a plate of Dhaba’s Chole Bature: chickpeas cooked in a spicy tomato gravy served with a deep-fried flatbread (bature). Dhaba’s version is puffy and just the right amount of greasy, especially when you get it fresh from the fryer.
ThelewalaAddress and Info
This tiny West Village spot may be best known for its nizami roll -- a new spin on the popular kati roll (a street-food dish that features a kebab wrapped in a flatbread known as paratha) -- but the absolute best thing on the menu is the bhel puri. Served casually in small silver takeout containers, the cold snack dish resembles a savory, cold Rice Krispies salad, made the traditional way with crispy puffed rice tossed with raw onion, tomatoes, and two kinds of chutney. Wash down the dish with cup of the restaurant’s chai (it’s one of the best in the city).
UtsavAddress and Info
It’s worth braving the throngs of Midwestern tourists and Sesame Street characters to get your hands on some of Utsav’s lasuni gobi. Served up in a swanky, very-Times Square setting (no matter), the dish -- which translates to garlicky cauliflower -- is kind of like a vegetarian take on crunchy chicken wings. Chef Hari Nayak coats cauliflower florets with a spiced tempura batter before deep-frying them, then tosses the fried florets in a tangy garlic/ginger/tomato sauce in a searing-hot wok. The result is a bright orange snack that’s guaranteed to change your opinion on vegetables.
HaldiAddress and Info
Haldi is a more recent addition to Curry Hill, offering a seriously huge menu that has everything from British Indian favorites like chicken tikka masala to Indo Chinese specialities like chili paneer -- but the malai kofta is undoubtedly the MVP. It’s a creamy, mild curry that features deep-fried balls of potato and paneer with a drizzle of cream on top, and it's best mopped up with some of Haldi’s super-fresh naan. The dish is perfect if you’re looking to expand your horizons beyond butter chicken, but don’t want to venture too far into the unknown.
Kottu HouseAddress and Info
Lower East Side
Nearly every culture has a dish that was created to use up leftover bread (bread pudding and croutons, to name a few). In South India and Sri Lanka, it’s kothu parotta, which consists of chopped-up parotta (a layered flatbread) that gets stir-fried with vegetables, curry, eggs, and sometimes meat. The result is a hearty bowl of spiced and flavorful carbs that can easily function as a complete meal. Kottu House is a Sri Lankan spot on the Lower East Side that offers a number of variations (for a reasonable price) -- including one made with chicken -- but the must-try is the pineapple, which is cooked down with coconut milk and fragrant spices.
Masala TimesAddress and Info
Often dubbed the Indian “sloppy Joe” (it literally translates to “bread and vegetables"), pav bhaji is a wildly popular dish that originated in the streets of Mumbai. Its nickname is a bit misleading, as it’s a totally meatless dish -- but everything else about it will remind you of that beautifully messy middle school lunch: mashed vegetables like potatoes and peas simmered in a flavorful gravy and served with extra-buttery buns that have been crisped on a griddle. Masala Times’ version is served extra hot and comes with a heaping pile of chopped raw onion and lemon wedges for an extra punch of flavor. Just bring some breath mints for after if you plan on speaking to anyone after.
Black dairy dhal and kulcha
Indian AccentAddress and Info
The menu skews more upscale at Indian Accent’s first New York City outpost, where you’ll find an innovative, prix fixe-style menu featuring the likes of black pepper pork with curd rice and duck chettinad. The real star of the menu, though, is the black dairy dhal: a silky, satisfying dish that features lentils cooked with tomatoes, dried fenugreek, and spices -- all finished off with lots of cream and Indian butter. The dal is served with kulchas (or stuffed naans) which are filled with everything from from classic things like butter chicken to non-traditional items like pastrami (a nod to NYC’s beloved deli meat).
Desi GalliAddress and Info
Desi Galli is NYC's haven for chaat -- a saucy, spicy, crunchy Indian style of snack foods that are usually loaded with chutneys and feature at least one item that’s fried. There are multiple cheap and cheerful options to choose from including dishes of samosa chaat (essentially samosa nachos) and vada pav (a sandwich featuring a crispy potato patty), but if for some reason you choose to only get one, it has to be the pani puri. While they’re traditionally served one piece at a time from a street-side stall, Desi Galli serves up a plate of crispy, puffed mini puris stuffed with spiced potatoes, topped off with tamarind chutney, and finally dunked in a bowl of fragrant water seasoned heavily with cilantro and mint. Be sure to eat them in one bite.
Ganesh Temple CanteenAddress and Info
Located in the basement of a Hindu temple in Flushing, this no-frills canteen is a hidden gem for cheap, vegetarian Indian food -- specifically the city’s best dosas. The go-to order here is the most classic dosa type -- the masala dosa. It’s a crepe-like dish stuffed with potatoes that are spiced with turmeric and sautéed with onion and mustard seeds, and it’s served alongside overflowing paper bowls of a spicy lentil soup called sambar for dipping. Silverware isn’t necessary -- the only way to eat a dosa is to tear right into it with your hands.
RajbhogAddress and Info
This tiny Jackson Heights store offers a number of savory Indian dishes like pav bhaji and a variety of chaats. But it’s best known for its dessert section, which is packed with authentic Indian sweets like rasgulla, a dessert that originates in East India and consists of spongy round dumplings made from semolina and soft cheese that get soaked in a sugar syrup. The dessert is sold by the pound, and while that’s technically way more than a single serving, at $8.99, it’s cheap enough to not have to share.
PaowallaAddress and Info
There’s eggs on toast, and then there is eggs Kejriwal -- the latter being a zippy, spiced-up version of the former, starring toasted bread topped with a sunny-side-up egg, melted cheese, and plenty of green chile. As the story goes, the dish is named after Devi Prasad Kejriwal, a member of the Willingdon Sports Club in Mumbai. Kejriwal allegedly had such a penchant for eggs -- a no-no at the strictly vegetarian club -- that the chefs hid his eggs beneath the cheese and chiles. Floyd Cardoz’s version at the recently opened Paowalla is a spiffed-up take on the kind served at cafes in Mumbai. He swaps plain white bread for a squishy brioche, and nixes the processed Amul-brand cheese for cheddar mixed with chopped serrano chiles. The whole dish gets topped off with a spicy green chili chutney for an extra kick.
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1. Babu Ji175 Avenue B, New York
2. Dhaba108 Lexington Ave, New York
3. Thelewala112 Macdougal St, New York
4. Utsav Restaurant1185 Avenue of the Americas, New York
5. Haldi102 Lexington Ave, New York
6. Kottu House250 Broome St, New York
7. Masala Times194 Bleecker St, New York
8. Indian AccentLe Parker Meridian 123 W 56th St, New York
9. Desi Galli101 Lexington Ave, New York
10. Ganesh Temple Canteen45-57 Bowne St, Flushing
11. Rajbhog Sweets72-27 37th Ave, Jackson Heights
12. Paowalla195 Spring St, New York
This airy, East Village Indian restaurant is serving traditional dishes with a modern twist that still feels true to the culture and cuisine. The menu features street food snacks like crispy gol gappa and yogurt kebab, satisfying tandoor-cooked meat dishes, and curries that run from coconut milk-based prawn to spicy ginger beef. An authentic Indian meal isn't complete without daal, so be sure to order Babu's slow-simmered black lentil daal, and of course, the charred-in-all-the-right-places naan.
Curry Hill, the stretch of Lexington Ave that runs straight through Murray Hill, is rife with Indian restaurants, the best of which may be Dhaba. The restaurant, which translates to “roadside stall,” serves a large menu of Punjabi favorites. Dhaba makes a unique version of the staple bature, which is a deep-fried flatbread. Theirs is puffy and wholly addictive, especially when served fresh from the fryer. Colorful fabrics roll line the long, slender space and jars of Indian spices are stacked prominently on shelves. The restaurant offers lunch specials seven days a week in addition to a late night menu.
You could easily miss this shoebox-sized Indian spot tucked into MacDougal Street, but that’d be a shame because Thelewala’s street food-style bites are some of the best late-night eats in the city (it’s open ‘til 5 AM on Friday and Saturday). There’s limited seating but the counter-serve sandwiches, like the grilled paneer cheese lime roll and the house chicken wrap, are wrapped in foil and made to eat on the go.
It’s worth braving Times Square to get to Utsav, a spacious Indian eatery with fixed-price pre-theatre deals and a lunch buffet. The interior is sleek, with burnt orange booths and chairs and dark wood finishings. The menu contains items from regions all over India, and the food is always fresh and consistent.
Haldi in Flatiron serves Indian and Bengali specialties in an eclectically decorated atmosphere. "Haldi" means "turmeric" in Hindi, which explains the heavy use of yellow in the decor. Sunny furniture sits under chandeliers made from green bottles and copper pans, achieving a quirky yet elegant look. The menu is extensive and authentic, from executive chef Hermant Mathur's famous kabobs to a whole section dedicated to Calcutta.
Kottu House in the Lower East Side is a compact, brick-walled Sri Lankan eatery. There are only three tables and six barstools and the menu is short, specializing in kottu, a street food that resembles fried rice (but is actually roti) and is made with vegetables and different proteins. The kottu is beyond spicy, but the niche menu item that the whole restaurant concept is based around has enough followers to make it work.
Masala Times in the West Village is a vibrant counter-service space with moody nightclub lighting and colorful wall accents evocative of a scene from a Bollywood movie. The service is fast and the menu is large, allowing you to customize curry and rice boxes or go for a more straightforward order. Both the atmosphere and the food are flavorful and fun, and it's a great stop for a quick lunch.
Straight from New Delhi to Le Parker Meridien is Chef Manish Mehrotra’s first international outpost of his acclaimed restaurant that specializes in so-called nouveau Indian. The fine-dining destination has both à la carte and tasting menus, and the food is a mix of authentic and fusion flavors. Signature dishes include sweet pickled ribs and stuffed kulcha, a wheat bread with fillings like butter chicken and wild mushrooms. In true New York fashion, the menu features one version of kulcha filled with pastrami and mustard butter.
This counter-service eatery in Kips Bay may look incredibly compact, but downstairs seating area allows you to stretch out while you enjoy plenty of their specialty chaat -- a saucy, spicy, crunchy Indian snack food as well at their Kati Rolls, which are like Indian burritos. Red, black and white hand-painted paisley designs cover the walls, and free WiFi and a large TV make Desi Galli the perfect place for a long lunch or late-night meal.
Authentic, buttery dosas are waiting for you in the basement cafeteria of a Hindu temple in Flushing. Open to anyone, Ganesh Temple Canteen serves a full menu of vegetarian south Indian food that includes tiffin items like puri roti and deep-fried lentil donuts, rice dishes, and of course, the aforementioned dosas. Made from a thin dough of rice and lentils, the dosas are huge, flaky, and served with toppings like red chutney and green chiles.
If the Gujarati vegetarian dishes at Jackson Heights’ Rajbhog Sweets and Snacks leave you feeling jolly, full, and a little plump, their 60-plus varieties of milk-based Bengali desserts will beg you to entirely unbutton your jeans post-meal. After you sit down for a masala dosa, try the Rasmalai (cheese dumplings served in rich creamy milk) or the Kala Jam (chocolate brown ball soaked in sugar syrup). Rajbhog, which translates as royal offerings to the gods, uses divinely pure ingredients like pure ghee (butter) and mawa (fresh milk) that are made fresh each day. You’ll have to order dessert by the pound, and with a display case as enticing as theirs, you’ll understand why.
From chef Floyd Cardoz (formerly of Tabla and North End Grill), Paowalla is an Indian restaurant that's all about bread: specifically, the traditional Goan bread Cardoz grew up with. Everything from rosemary naan to the cheddar cheese-stuffed kulcha can be paired with a wide variety of chutneys. The Soho restaurant also places a large emphasis on local produce and seafood, but the absolute must-try item is the "French fries" with coconut, garlic, and chilies.