Alive with the color of brilliant silk saris, the aroma of a hundred curries and the rhythms of Bhangra-inspired folk hits pouring out of music shops: This is Pioneer Boulevard, the heart of Little India. It sits in the middle of Artesia, a suburb north of Long Beach just off the 91 Freeway—which, conveniently for the widely dispersed Indian community (and the rest of us in L.A.), connects to the 405, 110, 710 and 605. Most restaurants serve regional specialties and street foods, and more than half are vegetarian, reflecting the way most Indians eat. A short stroll down this lively street brings total immersion into the varied cuisines of the Subcontinent.
Start at WOODLANDS on the northeast corner of Artesia Boulevard and Pioneer. The Karnataka-style southern vegetarian cuisine is so diverse and complex it renders meat irrelevant. From humble grains and legumes come crisp crepes, crunchy fritters, thick pancakes and breads, all eaten with dozens of curries and dipped into fresh coconut chutney. Across the street, the northern-style AMBALA DHABA gets it name from the funky roadside spots in the Punjab region. But this is a comfortable restaurant, offering beer and wine along with a lengthy menu of chicken, lamb, goat and vegetarian specialties. Still further south, LITTLE INDIA GRILL, an ultra-casual order-at-the-counter spot, turns out bargain northern-style combo meals and a wonderful array of breads, like keema naan stuffed with spiced, minced lamb.
Casual snack sellers known as chat shops are everywhere, and each has its own character and specialties. PIONEER SWEETS & SNACKS carries all the famous southern vegetarian items, such as dosas, parathas and a wide range of sweets. But its five different thalis—essentially combo meals—make ordering easy. A few shops further south, the separately owned AMBALA SWEETS sells an array of namkeen—crunchy, savory tidbits made from flours, lentils and nuts. You eat them plain or in salad-style dishes topped with tamarind and cilantro chutneys. Among the sweets here are rasmalai and cham cham, spongy milk-based balls in sweetened cream or syrup.
At the center of Little India, on 186th Street just east of Pioneer, is SURATI FARSAN MART, an elegant Gujarat-style snack shop. Worth a stop for the beautiful gift boxes alone, the café serves stellar chat and sweets. The pani puri, crunchy fried ping-pong ball–size orbs you fill with beans and minty water, are a must-try.
Close to 186th is FARM FRESH, where you can stock up on lentils, beans and spices, as well as masala dosa mix. Nearby is SHAN, serving the meat-intensive cuisine of Hyderabad. The central Indian city, long a crossroads, takes a smattering of flavors from many regions. There are 17 lamb curries in addition to five tandoor-cooked lamb items—yet the ruggedly spicy vegetable dishes are among the best on the street. A few steps south, the neat-as-a-pin UDUPI PALACE, named for the southern temple city in Karnataka state, makes dosas as long as baseball bats. Its kadi (little fritters) come submerged in sumptuous coconut curry.
You come to the end of Little India at the Little India Village mall. Upstairs sits the neo-moderne TIRUPATHI BHIMAS , serving the classic vegetarian fare of Andhra Pradesh state. The thalis and tiffins—multi-dish meals served on a tray—are the way to go. Follow these delights at SAFFRON SPOT, where Indian-style ice creams come in spectacular flavors, and the ice cream–topped rose or saffron milk drinks are studded with cooling basil seeds.
— Linda Burum
17631 Pioneer Blvd., 562.402.7990
18433 Pioneer Blvd., 562.402.0006
18551 Pioneer Blvd., 562.865.3191
Little India Grill
18383 Pioneer Blvd., 562.924.7569
Pioneer Sweets & Snacks
18413 Pioneer Blvd., 562.402.1155
18744 Pioneer Blvd., 562.809.4554
18621 Pioneer Blvd., 562.865.3838
Surati Farsan Mart
11814 E. 186th St., 562.860.2310
18792 Pioneer Blvd., 2nd fl., 562.809.3806
18635 Pioneer Blvd., 562.860.1950
11833 Artesia Blvd., 562.860.6500