House of Dosas
Location: 1391 Kingsway, Vancouver, 604-875-1283, houseofdosas-bc.com
Location: 1345 Kingsway, Vancouver, 778-379-7791, dosafactoryvancouver.com
Since it opened in 2004, House of Dosas has widely been regarded as the place to go for its eponymously named South Indian specialty – thin, golden crêpes made from a fermented rice-and-lentil batter.
You could argue that there are, or have been, better dosas in Vancouver: at Dosa Corner (although its curries and biryani are the dishes that really shine); at Indian Bay Leaf (which rolls out giant paper dosas in metre-long tubes); or at Chutney Villa (before it closed).
But House of Dosas was one of, if not the first South Indian restaurant to differentiate itself from the Lower Mainland’s vast sea of North Indian, predominantly Punjabi, butter chicken, tandoori and naan. It is also a cheap and cheerful sports bar that plays international cricket matches on multiple screens at all hours (for a spell, it was open 24/7). And in the minds of many, it’s an institution.
So imagine my surprise when I drove by recently and saw an enormous lineup – several storefronts long – outside another restaurant called Dosa Factory, located only a few doors down from House of Dosas (which looked relatively empty in comparison).
I soon discovered that a friendly feud had been ignited when the original House of Dosas owner, Raj Muttavanchery, moved back to Chennai in late 2016 and sold the business to an interloper. His disgruntled staff members, who had already been running the place by themselves for three years and had hoped to inherit the lease, opened Dosa Factory, which has been steadily gaining ground through word of mouth.
Both restaurants now offer cutthroat specials on various nights of the week (which explains the long lineup I saw outside Dosa Factory on $6.95 Dosa Monday). And an online debate rages among customers over which dosa reigns supreme.
“At the end of the day, the owner wanted to sell to somebody else and he sold for a good price,” says Dosa Factory’s general manager Jackson Sebastian, who explains that the entire staff (even the dishwashers) moved to the new restaurant, a vibrant red-carpeted and swag-valanced room owned by House of Dosas’s former chefs, George Benedict and Keshav Chand.
“Eighty per cent of the regular customers came with us,” he continues. “And now we are getting so many new customers who drive all the way from Langley and Abbotsford and Mission, we stopped all our advertisements. We don’t need it.”
Over at House of Dosas, general manager Vimal Raj says the new owner (Uma Kesavan, whose family has restaurants in Toronto) isn’t fussed about the nearby competition. The dining room was renovated (the musty carpets were torn out and yellow walls cleaned up with white paint and natural-stone tile), but the menu remains largely the same. “The restaurant is 15 years old. We have a strong reputation. We don’t really need to worry about Dosa Factory.”
An online battle continues to pit one restaurant against the other. There doesn’t appear to be any consensus over which is better, except from a loud contingent of ecowarriors who deplore Dosa Factory’s practice of setting the tables with complimentary plastic water bottles.
I must agree that there isn’t one clear-cut winner, although the old-fashioned mannerisms at Dosa Factory (the servers kept deferring to the man with whom I was dining with and looked baffled when I pulled out a credit card to pay the bill) really raised my hackles.
Each restaurant does certain dishes well and some recipes vary widely, probably because the chefs hail from different states. Based on my wholly unscientific and selective taste test (one night, two restaurants, 10 dishes), the Battle of the Kingsway Dosa ended in a draw.
A basic dosa is a crêpe made from a batter of finely ground rice and urad dal (black lentils) that are fermented overnight, mixed with water and ladled onto a ghee-greased griddle, then folded into golden triangles and served with sambar (lentil stew) and chutneys. A paper dosa is spread even more finely so that it cooks really wide, crisp and light. It is rolled into hollow tubes that are sometimes (but not always) filled with curry or mashed potato (masala) stuffings. The paper dosas at Dosa Factory are slightly thinner and crisper, but more importantly, tangy from a longer ferment.
Winner: Dosa Factory
Onion rava masala dosa
A quicker, gluten-flour dosa, this variation is made with semolina flour (rava), rice flour and all-purpose flour. The batter, mixed with onions and various spices, only rests for an hour or less, so it doesn’t have the same sourdough-like tang as a regular dosa. House of Dosas had a beautifully lacey texture that was punctuated with holes and so thin it was almost furled at the ends. Dosa Factory’s was crisp and cracker-like. House of Dosas used green onions that cooked down quickly, whereas Dosa Factory used red onions (in addition to lots of cumin) that tasted more sharp and raw – much like the rustic, unpeeled potato masala stuffing spiced with mustard seeds and turmeric, which was chunky and undercooked.
Winner: House of Dosas
Sambar and chutneys
Both coconut chutneys were made from desiccated coconut (not fresh), but those from House of Dosas were blended smoother. Dosa Factory’s tasted raw and fibrous. Its tomato chutney, also fibrous, was eye-squintingly sour. The condiments at House of Dosas all had a rounder, mellower, more deeply toasted-spice edge.
Winner: House of Dosas
This was my first time tasting this South Indian mainstay, a finely ground powder made from rice, lentils, chiles, curry leaves and various spices. The House of Dosa version (served on the side of a paper dosa) was a dark sludge of earthy sand congealed under a rancid swamp of sesame oil. The Dosa Factory version, rubbed on steamed idli rice cakes, was also gritty (“like Shake ‘n’ Bake,” my friend noted), but bright orange and much livelier on the palate.
Winner: Dosa Factory
House of Dosas was once famous for these spicy, deep-fried chicken bites marinated with garlic, ginger, red chiles and yogurt. But the new chef makes them bland, greasy and stubby. You’ll have to go to Dosa Factory for the meaty, juicy original recipe.
Winner: Dosa Factory
The former House of Dosas owner used to complain that everyone else in the city was making “fake” biryani with mixed rice, curry and chicken. And that’s exactly how the dry Dosa Factory rendition tastes. The dum chicken at House of Dosas is fluffier, moist with drumsticks that have sacrificed all their juice to a slow steam and alive with fresh spices and radiant pepper heat.
Winner: House of Dosa
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