POTENT PAIRINGS: Dosas, pastries and Indian-Chinese fare at Indian Hut.
For some food-minded folks — the culinary Marco Polos — there’s a distinct thrill in discovering a strip-mall gem. So we’ll take you on this trip in the second-person.
You’re in the far Northeast, driving on an unremarkable stretch of (the seemingly redundantly named) Street Road. Questionable all-you-can-eat sushi joints and fast-casual chain restaurants whiz by on either side of the six-lane highway. Then, in one of the shopping centers, you notice an outpost of massive Indian grocery store Patel Brothers and a shop selling intricately beaded saris, with a salon that specializes in henna in the back — telltale signs that good food is probably somewhere nearby. And your instincts are correct, because there it is: Indian Hut Curry & Cakes (1967 Street Rd., Bensalem).
You cut across a couple lanes of traffic and pull into the parking lot, which also serves an A.C. Moore, a fireplace retailer and a sketchy-looking pet store advertised by a large, hand-lettered yellow sign reading PUPPIES! in the back of a pickup truck. The menu in the window lists standard Indian staples like aloo gobhi masala, biryanis and chicken tikka. But there’s also a more intriguing section: “Indo Chinese.” There’s that little thrill.
Indian Hut was initially a side project for owner Mannu Mitt, whose background is in I.T. His menu looks to replicate a unique cuisine with roots in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), home to India’s only Chinatown. “It’s a fusion of Indian and Chinese fast foods,” he says, “the kind of thing you find sold on street corners.”
Mitt opened the first Indian Hut in Exton in 2007 — “It was a hobby, something to do on nights and weekends,” he says. The original concept was even more of a mash-up — a combination of a French bakery, Indo-Chinese and dosas, oversized rice-flour-and-lentil crepes. But in five years, he had expanded the menu into a mini-chain, with locations in North Wales and here in Bensalem.
You order several dishes from the Indo-Chinese section of the menu and sit down to pass the time. The Bollywood music videos playing on the wall-mounted TV prove fairly inaccessible, so you pull out your phone to do a little research.
Indo-Chinese isn’t the arbitrary pairing of cuisines that “Asian fusion” brings to mind. Kolkata’s Chinatown has been around for hundreds of years, and the immigrant cuisine has a long time to naturally marinade in Indian flavors. The city’s ethnic Chinese population is largely of Hakka descent, meaning that they or their forebears came from southeastern provinces, like Sichuan.
When a plate of Indian Hut’s hakka noodles hits the table, their appearance is deceptively lo mein-y, with shreds of carrots, cabbage and bell peppers. But it’s alive with a heat and brightness not typically found in strip malls. Chef Swatanatra Singh is kind enough to break down the process of sautéing the noodles (“spaghetti,” he says), with chiles, ginger, garlic, black and white pepper and a kick of soy. The two distinct flavor profiles marry seamlessly.
Chicken Manchurian’s glossy, deep-fried exterior wouldn’t look out of place at your local Number One Dragon Garden. But tasting it, the trinity of ginger, garlic and green chiles are right there, along with a serious umami hit of soy. It’s got the satisfying stickiness of General Tso’s, but its flavors are more vibrant, less cloying and deeply savory. That same savoriness carries over to the veg Manchurian, tender little vegetable dumplings served in a rich brown curry gravy spiked with soy and chiles.
Digging deeper into Indian Hut’s offerings, you find some fascinating street-food snacks. There are little vada pav, fried-potato sliders sandwiched into burger buns and topped with sharp cilantro chutney. You pass on the intriguing but confusing-sounding samosa panini, described as “vegetable samosa topped with fresh tomatoes, lettuce and green peppers stuffed in a panini.”
And then there is chicken 65. “A very popular quick bite,” Singh says of the deep red, deep-fried bar snack of chile and onion-topped chicken. Indian Hut’s menu mentions that the marinade’s 65 spices give the dish its name, but fails to provide a list, so out comes the phone again. Seems that not everybody traces the “65” back to the marinade ingredients — there’s lots of entertaining speculative origin stories. The dish should only be made with 65-day-old chickens. It takes 65 days to perfect the marinade. It was created in 1965 in a Chennai hotel. Tamil-speaking soldiers trying to order at a bar in non-Tamil-speaking Chennai eventually gave up and just kept ordering the best thing on the menu: “number 65.”
Indian Hut’s is perfect drinking food, made with boneless chicken thighs that sit for hours in a blend of ginger, garlic, chiles, lemon juice, garam masala and a bit of red food coloring before being fried to a crimson crisp and finished with sliced red onion and an orange chile pepper.
Singh is especially proud of his pastries, displayed in a glass case by the register. He’s engineered the recipes for the delicate slices of mango, Black Forest and mixed-fruit cake, among others, until they’re light and not cloyingly sweet. He says it’s so you can have two or even three slices without feeling overloaded on sweets, a departure from the world of sugar-syrupy Indian desserts.
You wash all this down with ample tap water (no ice), lassis and a thick glass bottle of Thums Up — a cola with a retro logo, questionable spelling, an out-of-place looking USDA sticker half-heartedly tacked on and a flavor that is definitely neither Coke or Pepsi. Something about these bold, spicy Indo-Chinese plates screams for beer, though — you make a mental note to BYO next time.
Indian Hut | 1967 Street Rd., Bensalem, Pa., 215-638-2200, indianhut.com. Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Snacks, $2.99-$8.99; mains, $6.99-$13.99; desserts, $1.49-$11.99.
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