You may not think of an Indian temple as a dining destination, but the no-frills canteen in the basement of the Ganesh Temple in Flushing, Queens, will make you think again.
Growing up in a Hindu household, I had my fill of temple food, but this canteen puts most of that to shame. What’s more, you don’t have to spend much to sample widely from the menu here.
The canteen specializes in South Indian cuisine—particularly dishes from the state of Tamil Nadu. On weekdays, you’ll get your food promptly. But on weekends, be prepared to wait in long lines and joust for a spot at the cafeteria-style tables.
If you do brave the weekend crowds, you’ll be rewarded with the chance to try hard-to-find specialties from other states in southern India, like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. On weekends, the canteen also serves rasam, a spicy, tomato-based, thin lentil soup typically eaten with rice.
You can’t go wrong with the Mysore masala dosa, a paper-thin, savory crepe encircling a small mound of spiced mashed potato that comes with coconut chutney and excellent sambar, a spicy lentil stew with chunks of vegetables. It was definitely one of the most flavorful and authentic dosas in New York City.
A number of other diners were eating uttapam, a subtly tangy, pancake-like dish made from fermented lentils and rice ground into flour, and idlis, steamed, fist-size, flying saucer–shaped cakes made from the same fermented flour. Instead, I tried the vadas, savory, deep-fried donuts made from ground lentil flour, which were tasty and very fresh.
Not everything I tried was a hit. The bisi bele bath, a spicy stew that combines lentils, rice and vegetables, lacked flavor.
The proper way to end a South Indian meal is with yogurt rice, but the canteen’s version was unspectacular—though it hit the spot when paired with their fiery lemon pickle.
I ended my meal with cups of the canteen’s rich (and very authentic) Madras coffee, instant coffee brewed in a pot with plentiful milk and sugar. It doubles as a dessert and a palate cleanser, and it’s a steal at $1.
The canteen also sells packaged snacks and spice mixes. You can buy rasam powder, chutney powder—a spicy mixture that you can sprinkle on most anything to make it delicious (my Dad and I love it on pizza)—and even the tamarind paste used to flavor rice and lentils.
There also are a variety of sweet snacks—like extra-large (tennis ball-size) laddus, round balls made from ground chickpea flour, ghee (clarified butter) and sugar, and jangiri, dough twisted into a pretzel shape, deep-fried and soaked in sugar syrup—as well as salty snacks.
The chakli, a spiral-shaped, fried snack made from ground chickpea flour, and chivda, a salty snack made with nuts and puffed rice that is the South Indian equivalent of Chex party mix, caught my eye.
The Ganesh Temple canteen serves some of the most authentic Indian food in New York City—and with its adjacent temple and a bookstore stocked with religious figures, images and texts in almost every Indian language, it’s one of the most unique eating experiences you’ll find in a borough with no shortage of international flair.
Canteen at the Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam (Ganesh Temple), 45-57 Bowne St., Flushing, Queens, 718-460-8484, www.nyganeshtemple.org
Chitra Agrawal writes the food blog, The ABCD’s of Cooking, which chronicles her adventures cooking Indian recipes as an “American Born Confused Desi” (“ABCD”). She also hosts an online cooking show and a supper club featuring Indian-inspired vegetarian cuisine.