North or South? It’s a question worth asking when in the mood for Indian cuisine. For those diners who may be unaware there is a difference, a new restaurant in Santa Clara offers a sumptuous crash course on Indian fare hailing from the tropical regions of the subcontinent.

The CliffsNotes version is easy enough to remember: Northern Indian food, features naan, cream-based sauces, curries and is primarily carnivorous in nature. Southern Indian food on the other hand is usually vegetarian and leans heavily on coconut, dal (lentils) and heavy on the rice. Ulavacharu Tiffins specializes in the latter—along with plenty of dosas.

To the uninitiated, dosas are thin, crêpe-like pancakes made with a gluten-friendly batter of fermented rice and black garam, a type of bean. They are served with an abundance of different chutneys, which diners dunk bite-sized pieces of dosa into—much like Ethipioan injera.

Ulavacharu Tiffins’ curated menu consists of a single sheet. It’s mostly different takes on dosas, some apps and a few rice dishes thrown in for good measure. Though the menu may seem simple to the untrained eye, we quickly encountered an obstacle after ordering our first appetizer—some medhu vada ($6 for four pieces).

With 25 different dosa options, ranging from plain to filled, it was not an easy choice. We finally settled on a masala dosa ($8) and a tomato-onion-chili uthappam ($10).

Before I go any further, it’s important to note that these dishes are really all about the chutneys. Ulavacharu Tiffins has four delicious house-made chutneys that come with each dish—coconut, peanut, ginger and tomato-chili (my favorite, on account of its rich flavor and creamy texture). In addition, they also serve shot-sized cups of warm sambar (lentil soup). Each of these had a deliciously earthy and sweet flavor from the dal, tomatoes and onions.

The best part about all these chutneys and sambar, is that they bring the refill containers straight to your table. No need to wait around for a refill when your favorite chutney is running dangerously low.

The medhu vada came out first. These donut-shaped fritters have a crisp exterior and soft fluffy interior much lighter than that of the cake donuts they resemble, due to their rice and lentil base. Served hot and fresh, we gobbled them up quickly as we sampled each of the aforementioned sauces and sambar.

The dosas came out next. Though the masala dosa is quite large (it dwarfed the plate) it is light and airy. It almost melts in one’s mouth. We proceeded to break the dosa in half to reveal its filling—in this case fluffy spiced potatoes. Then, we proceed to tear off bite-sized chunks of the breading from the outside, scooping up bits of filling and dunking them the chutneys. Each bite was a harmonious blend of the crisp and airy dosa, steamy potato and delectable dipping sauce. It’s also fun to mix-and-match the chutneys into different flavor combinations.

An uthappam is also a dosa, but thicker—like an American pancake filled with savory ingredients. Our order was stuffed with tomatoes, chilis and onions. The airy bubbles, which form during the overnight fermentation of the rice flour, gave this dish a pleasant mouthfeel. And while the copious fillings were quite savory, they did not overwhelm.

To those who avoid Indian and South Asian restaurants for fear of overly-spicy bites, take heart—Ulavacharu Tiffins does an excellent job of balancing the spices in all their dishes. It is also worth noting that they are open early for breakfast (the word “tiffins” refers to a light tea-time meal) and the food here would be excellent any time of day.

Ulavacharu Tiffins
3530 El Camino Real, Santa Clara