By Suzanne Parker
Southern Spice used to be our favorite Indian restaurant.
It was the proverbial hole-in-the-wall near the Ganesh Temple on Bowne Street in Flushing. When it closed its doors in 2011, we mourned. Our go-to locale for sub-continental fare, Jackson Heights, has become increasingly Himalayanized, leaving us with fewer strictly Indian options to choose from. We’re not quite sure how this piece of information slipped by us, but were overjoyed to recently learn that Southern Spice didn’t just close, but moved to larger if not too much more stylish digs on Hillside Avenue in New Hyde Park.
The majority of Indian restaurants in the metropolitan area feature the Punjabi fare of northern India. Those that concentrate on southern style Indian food tend to be vegetarian. What sets Southern Spice apart is that they offer both non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes of southern India with a special emphasis on Chettinad cuisine.
The name Chettinad derives from the term Chettiar, a title used by some mercantile castes in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Chettinad cuisine is one of the spiciest and the most aromatic in India, something you’ll realize very quickly when you dine at Southern Spice.
The appetizer list runs the gamut from the predictable samosas, to crispy calamari with mango chutney, a new one on us for an Indian restaurant. Their somewhat petite samosas were outstanding—light crispy outsides with a lovingly spiced potato/veggie filling.
Kerala crab cakes, served on a mild coconut gravy reminded us of those served in the American Deep South — with a fairly high ratio of filling to crab in a scrumptious sauce with a kick.
There is a broader selection of dosas, those giant rice and lentil crepes of South India, than anywhere we’ve been. Both veggie and non-veggie fillings are available. We’d never encountered non-vegetarian dosas before, but what could be bad rolled up inside a huge crisp crepe? We opted for an eggplant filling, which was fragrant but not excruciatingly spicy. Dosas come with coconut chutney and sambar for dipping.
Southern Spice is known for its Hyderabadi-style dhum biryani in which the ingredients are layered in a clay pot and steamed together with the lid sealed shut with strips of dough. They season this dish with spices from the Neelagiri Mountains and serve it with a hard-boiled egg and yogurt raita. We went with the mutton version and admit to having chosen poorly. The rice was deliciously aromatic, but the mutton was tough and bony. Next time we will stick with veggie or chicken. As an interesting alternative to biryani, consider Kothu parota, a famous street food of Madras made by layering chopped up grilled bread with eggs, scallions, chilies and, as with the biryani, a choice of protein.
We overheard an Indian gentleman at a nearby table waxing nostalgic about the chicken Chettinad and had to try it. The man inadvertently gave us great advice. Although majorly spicy, the tender chunks of chicken, in a predominantly black pepper gravy, favored a uniquely beguiling combination of powerful spices.
We completed our meal with almond halwa, a warm pudding redolent of cardamom and clove.
We accompanied it with an iced chai. We needed it after all that spice.
The bottom Line
If you enjoy really spicy Indian food, there is no place we can recommend more highly. The Chettinad people have a special relationship with Muruga, Hindu god of war. He is the commander-in-chief of the army of the devas (gods). Maybe that’s why their food is so fiery.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfo
1635 Hillside Ave.
New Hyde Park
Price Range: Appetizers: $6 — $16; Entrees: $11 — $18
Cuisine: Southern Indian
Setting: Medium sized comfortable space, indifferently decorated
Service: Adequate, less than attentive.
Hours: Open seven days for lunch and dinner. Closed on weekdays from 3 p.m. — 5 p.m.
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Noise level: Acceptable
Handicap accessible: Yes