As you can probably imagine, people ask me where they can find the best ___ all the time. Indian cuisine is one that comes up a lot. My answer to where to find the best Indian food in the capital region is always Karavalli, located at 9 Johnson Road in Latham, NY.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that Karavalli is nestled away in a strip mall that’s just a little north of the beaten path in Latham. Inside, you will find some of the most fragrant and complex Indian dishes in the area. They also have a great buffet during the day on weekdays and weekends.
The menu at Karavalli is extensive, and focuses more on the southern Indian dishes which tend to be spicier. They have a special pepper rating, and most of the dishes range from 1 to 3 peppers, with one dish having a 4 pepper rating, but I’ll get back to this later.
As you look over the menu, they bring some fresh papadum (a lentil cracker) to the table. There’s mint and onion chutneys to eat with the papadum at the table.
Having dined at Karavalli a number of times before, I know that the appetizer to order is the masala dosai, a lentil crepe filled with a potato stew – $7.
It is served with a coconut chutney, a tomato chutney, and a very loose lentil potato stew called sambar. I always try to be polite and eat this with a fork and knife, but, as you look around the restaurant, you realize that everyone (yes, everyone orders this) is just ripping it apart and eating it with their hands.
The lentil crepe is crunchy and thin. It has a very soft and airy texture, and you have to eat a bunch off of each side before getting to the potato filling inside. I like to eat the potato filling parts with the chutneys. I don’t do much with the sambar, but I usually take a few bites with it. As far as Indian spices go, this is a great dish to get acquainted with the spices. The crepe is very mild, and the potato stew inside has a very mild mixture of spices. The chutneys are very interesting. The coconut chutney is a puree of coconut with some interesting spices; I like it because it’s slightly sweet. The tomato chutney is a puree of tomatoes cooked down with a very minimal amount of spices. It’s a little bitter, so alternating between the chutneys provides a lot of balance in eating this.
So let’s talk about the heat at this place.
On a challenge, a few years ago, my buddy, Rory, invited me to have dinner with him at Karavalli. The deal was that we were both going to order phaal, the only four pepper dish on the menu. We had seen an episode of Man v. Food where he does a challenge with this really spicy dish, phaal, and found that Karavalli was one of the nicer places in the area that offers it. The experience was life changing, and I had stumbled onto one of the most interesting dishes I’ve eaten in the area.
For this visit, I ordered lamb phaal (A popular Anglo-Indian spicy dish with green chilies, ginger and coriander – $16). The server double checked that I was familiar with the dish, and, after having my appetizer, the chef came out of the kitchen to make sure I really wanted the dish (this also happened when I went with Rory).
Because I knew the heat was going to be intense, I ordered a mango lassi.
Mango lassi is essentially a mango and yogurt smoothie. Theirs is unique because they serve it close to room temperature. It’s pretty sweet, but the yogurt and the body of the lassi was going to help me enjoy my phaal.
After a few moments, the phaal came from the kitchen. It is served with fragrant, steamed basmati rice.
I knew what I was getting into, so I served some onto my plate and allowed it to cool to room temperature. [The reason for this is that it comes from the kitchen very hot, and both types of heat are a little much for me to handle at the same time.]
It looks like a standard lamb curry or masala, but it is extremely spicy. It’s a very interesting heat though. Once you take a bite, the chile flavor takes over, and your mouth is on fire. As you eat it with the rice, various flavors come out, the most prominent being fresh ginger. Some other flavors that are strong are cardamom, mustard seed, coriander, cloves, cumin, and peppercorns. Because of the overwhelming amount of heat and the instinct to move this around as you eat it, your palate gets a lot of stimulation. You would think that a dish that I’m telling you is this spicy would be difficult to taste. I’m telling you that the heat actually magnifies the flavors.
I really like getting this dish with lamb, as it provides a meat that’s silky in texture and the fat of the lamb helps the flavors distribute through the dish, but I’ve admittedly never tried the other meat options.
It takes me a pretty long time to finish a bowl of phaal, and sometimes it takes two mango lassis. Their superior naan bread also helps with the heat at times.
If you’re a person who enjoys spicy food, this is your kind of dish. It is not for the faint of heart.
On the way out, treat yourself to a few spoonfuls of complimentary candied anise seeds or cardamom rock candy. If you ordered the phaal and survived the heat, you deserve it!