Restaurant News & Reviews

Vegetarian eats from south India … in northeast Charlotte

Thali is a traditional Indian lunch, a hearty sampler of vegetarian flavors.
Thali is a traditional Indian lunch, a hearty sampler of vegetarian flavors.

Seems not long ago that Charlotte had only a couple of Indian restaurants. That’s changing fast as people from South Asia have become the city’s largest non-Latino immigrant group. Case in point, Madras Cafe.

“Some people want pure vegetarian, for keeping a good health,” says Satish Kumar, who arrived in Charlotte in 1998 to do internet engineering. For those South Asians, a restaurant that offers a mix of vegetarian and meat dishes won’t do, he says.

So Kumar and partner created Madras Cafe in 2016. Though Kumar himself lives in Ballantyne, they located the eatery in the Mallard Creek area of University City in northeast Charlotte – which is now also home to many upscale immigrants from India and Pakistan. Within close range of I-85’s exit 46B, you can find an Indian bakery; Rajbhog Foods; a South Asian butcher who abides by the Muslim holy regulations known as halal; Holy Joe Meats; and half a dozen Indian restaurants.

Hanchett mug '17
Observer freelancer Tom Hanchett is also a community historian who writes at HistorySouth.org. Nancy Pierce

Madras Cafe offers an extensive menu, but at lunch I suggest the thali, a generous sampler. Thali is India’s favorite lunch; it’s usually served on a hand-hammered metal disc crowded with tiny bowls, but at Madras it is fashion-forward, on a bright yellow-molded one-piece tray.

The tray’s biggest niche holds two kinds of rice (white and veggie-tossed), plus two kinds of thin flatbread, poori and papad. The day I visited, there were also delightful spinach fritters plus a mini-bowl of chana masala (a savory chickpea stew) to dip the fritters or bread in.

Next to the rice, six smaller niches offered samples of:

▪ Sambar, a lentil-vegetable soup.

▪ Chilli idly, cubes of lentil bread coated in a mild red spice mix.

▪ Stewed okra, called bendakaya vepudu in Kumar’s native tongue Telugu, which is India’s third-largest language.

▪ Eggplant masala.

▪ Saag paneer, chunks of mild cheese in a creamy spinach sauce.

▪ Kesari bath, a sweet dessert made with wheat, nuts, raisin and sugar. It looks and tastes a bit like sweet potato pudding (although it doesn’t contain sweet potato).

“I grew up with all of these,” says Kumar. “Except the spinach fritters. Those we had at weddings. Too difficult to make at home.”

The selection – which changes every day and is more elaborate on weekends – is a bargain at $5.99 weekdays, or $9.99 Saturday and Sunday. And the rich flavors will hook you, even if you are a confirmed meat-eater.

Community historian Tom Hanchett writes at HistorySouth.org. Reach him at Tom@HistorySouth.org.

Madras Cafe

Location: 3130 Driwood Court.

Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. (Note: Thali served during lunchtime only.)

Details: 980-237-1947; MadrasCafeCharlotte.com.

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