Saravana Bhavan’s dining room will never win a beauty contest. The building at the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and Valley Ranch Parkway in Irving reminded me of a miniature Holiday Inn Express or some corporate diner when I first walked in the door. Or maybe a Bank of America? The cheap windows and brick veneer pointed to hurried construction, and the “please wait to be seated” sign that greets customers screamed out Shoney’s. If not for the smell of heady curries riding on the air in a packed dining room, I might have aborted my dining mission.
Not too long ago the same address played host to a short-lived Luke’s Sports Grill, a sports bar that lasted about as long as the Rangers in this year’s playoffs. If you look at the doorway that leads to the bathrooms, you’ll see a relic of the failed bar and grill carved in a wood sign — better luck next time. But don’t dwell on the past or spend too much time trying to figure out what purpose that drive-thru window served years ago. Focus instead on the sprawling, spiral-bound menu filled with page after page of vegetarian curries, many of which are outstanding.
Start with a mango lassi: thick, sweet, tart and the color of a Creamsicle. It comes in a plastic tumbler, unlike much of the rest of the menu, which is served on stainless steel dinnerware of different shapes and sizes. There’s sweetened coffee with cream and chai — both served in small metal cups after a cook in the kitchen “throws” the liquids, or pours them back and forth at height to make them froth.
The curries arrive on stainless steel plates with nooks for sides and condiments like school lunch trays. Sambars that would be delicious if they were served on their own accompany freshly griddled, baked and fried breads, while other dishes come with raita, a savory yogurt salad filled with herbs and pungent red onion, or simple potato curries.
Don’t miss the chili mushrooms that reminded me a bit of the popular chili chicken I’ve ordered and inhaled at Chinese-Indian restaurants. The mushrooms were breaded and fried and then cooked again with a spicy red chili paste. Herbs were folded into the mix along with fresh chili slivers for a plate that was intensely spicy. The burn and resulting perspiration did nothing to slow me down, and while I’ll admit I may have left a chili sliver or two behind, I devoured every mushroom.
That sort of ravenous response was a common thread. During another visit, I ordered far too many dishes for my table for two, only because I wanted to work my way through the nearly hundred items available on the menu. When a mixed vegetable parotta landed on the table, my date and I knew there were five more plates behind it. We did our best to taste just enough to get to know the dish but the shredded bread was cooked in a delicious curry, with potatoes and other vegetables tossed in the mix. We kept eating — just one more bite! — and minutes later when a potato and cauliflower curry arrived the vegetable parotta was gone. We ate until our mouths were numb and then we ate until our stomachs were distended and then we debated dessert. That’s how things seem to go at Saravana Bhavan.
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The back page of the menu shows a restaurant group based in Chennai, India, that seems bent on conquering the world. Locations are on every continent but South America and Antarctica, with U.S. locations in New York, New Jersey, California and one each in Dallas and Houston. But that long list of restaurants (the website counts more than 40) along with one of the most soulless dining rooms in all of Texas belies what is typically great cooking. Saravana Bhavan may be a chain restaurant, but it’s a chain restaurant that belongs on your Indian dining rotation.
If you’re in the mood for a dosa, go big and order the paper dosa, which could easily eclipse the small tables here if it wasn’t rolled into a tube. Dosas end up on almost every table here, where customers are quick to fold them in half to make their size slightly more manageable. You can get yours served with various potato curries, cheese, onions, spice blends and various other combinations — all of them come with mint, coconut and tomato chutneys for dipping.
What you won’t find is meat of any kind on the menu. Saravana Bhavan focuses on South Indian cooking and the menu is explicitly vegetarian. That doesn’t mean the food is always healthy. Many dishes taste richly of butter, like the mini idli swimming in sambar laced with ghee. Don’t get vegetarian cooking mixed up with the beansprout offerings of a vegan restaurant. There is no texturized bean curd or tofu masquerading as some other animal protein. Every dish is vegetarian because that’s how it was created from the start. The food here is rich, satisfying and highly in demand.
If only the dining room were a little warmer. Saravana Bhavan isn’t like the countless casual restaurants dotting the suburbs that serve curry on Styrofoam plates. But it’s a world away from the ornate and richly colored dining rooms of Mughlai in North Dallas or Chennai, which recently moved to Frisco. Saravana Bhavan is a restaurant that is clean and brightly lit, but completely devoid of style. You won’t mind, though, when your chili mushrooms arrive. The focus of the staff and the scores of diners who surround you is clearly on the plates.