Houston is pretty well known for it diverse selection of really cheap “ethnic” food. (I’ve never really known what people mean when they say ethnic food, but for now, let’s assume it means anything non-western). A lot of this ethnic food is in west Houston, about a 30 to 40 minute drive from where I live. As much as I love good food, especially cheap good food, I am loath to venture out of the I-610 periphery, dubbed the “loop,” since there are so many great restaurants much closer. Few of these great restaurants, however, serve great food that is Chinese, Vietnamese (Mai’s is a notable exception), Korean, Pakistani, Indian, etc.

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So when I recently learned about Pondicheri cafe, a little Indian restaurant that was a mere 10 minutes way and supposedly fantastic, I was pretty excited. And also a little embarrassed  How could I have lived in Houston for a year and a half and never have known about this purported gem in the West Ave center!? Probably because I’ve already been a couple times to this rather ritzy shopping/dining/plastic surgery center (yep, the complex has its very own plastic surgeon), and wouldn’t have expected a restaurant so casual and so cool to be in this location.

The first thing I notice about Pondicheri, before I even get inside, is the spicy sweet smell of various curries emanating from the kitchen. Once inside, the next thing I notice is how inviting the space is. The restaurant is very bright and very colorful, and mixes warm wood tones with modern, industrial finishes. This is definitely not your typical Indian restaurant.

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But the smell of spices beckoned again and I just wanted to get some food to our table and into my belly. Anyone who has gone out to restaurants with me a couple of times will tell you that I have the potential to be an unbearable dining companion. This is mostly because I can NEVER make up my mind about what to order. So I will ask endless questions of the server, inquire about what everyone else is ordering, and occasionally request substitutions or modifications to the order. Annoying.

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“Rancher” thali with butter chicken, sayel lamb, smoked eggplant, cucumber salad, quinoa khichri & naan

So one thing I love about Pondicheri are the thalis, which come with small portions of a few different curries, vegetables, and some kind of bread, usually naan. Thalis were new to me, but the concept is pretty standard in Indian home cooking and restaurants. It’s almost like an Indian buffet but better.

Obviously the food is better than at your average buffet, but the non-bottomless portions also keep you from eating until you hate yourself (save the self-hate for the desserts. They’re worth it). This means I don’t have to choose between the butter chicken and the sayel lamb, or the dal and the eggplant. I can get both! and then some! And the poor server can be left alone.

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“Vishnu” thali with vegetable curry, brussels sprouts, smoked eggplant, dal, sambhar & carrot paratha

I enjoyed everything I sampled from the thalis, but the butter chicken, sayel lamb, roasted eggplant, and brussel sprout salad shined the brightest. Another winner was the Papdi Chaat. I am no connoisseur of Indian food, so I had never had anything like Papdi Chaat before.

Luckily, I had an Indian friend with me on one of my visits to explain. Papdi Chaat is usually sold by street vendors, and is more typical of northern India. It was a really interesting dish with mix of textures from the crunchy crackers, soft dumplings, and chickpeas. And the yogurt, tamarind chutney (imli), and cilantro sauce offered contrasting flavors and colors.

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Some of the more unique dishes at Pondierchi fall outside of the “curry” category. (A note about the meaning of “curry.” Curry is a generic term Americans use to describe an endless combination of spices used in Indian, Pakistani, Thai, or other Southeast Asian dishes. You can’t go to a restaurant in India and order a “curry,” at least not if you want a meal…)

If it’s not obvious already, Pondicheri is not a traditional Indian restaurant, and has a lot of dishes that are playful mixes of Indian street food, with American and French touches. Take for example, the Lamb Mint Burger and the breakfast frankie – a roti “taco” with masala eggs and cilantro, or even the Shrimp Chutney salad with beets and avocado. None of these are distinctly Indian, but not really identifiable as European or American either.

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The city of Pondicheri (also known as Pondicherry, now known as Puducherry) was one of the last French colonial outposts. And maybe it’s just me, but Pondicheri’s fascination with baked treats, pastries, and desserts seems characteristically French.

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The “Bake Lab” even makes French madeleines, and little cakes that I’m pretty sure were financiers. Unfortunately both were gobbled up by some other lucky person by the time dessert was ordered, so I tried some of the cookies from the Bake Lab and ice cream instead. The mango ice cream was some of the best I’ve ever had, and the double chocolate hazelnut basil cookie was strangely perfect. Added plus – the cookie was gluten free (Pondicheri’s menu has a lot of vegan and gluten free options).

Though I sampled from almost every course available during dinner, I can’t call my Pondicheri experience complete until I get to try their breakfast. It’s supposed to be one of the most unique in Houston, and as a devoted fan of all things breakfast, I’ll certainly have to return. And maybe snag a madeleine next time too.

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Perfect for: a fun lunch with friends or unique breakfast

Favorite dish: “Rancher” thali with double chocolate hazelnut basil cookie

Pondicheri on Urbanspoon

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