“We cannot serve bhel puri in a newspaper the traditional way, because it is not FDA-approved,” Kavitha Raghavan says of the cone of crispy crackers and puffed rice she pairs with a Venetian rosé. “But it’s much more about the sauce than the assembly. Indian street food is always 15 ingredients.”
With five small tables and only half a dozen seats at the bar, Raghavan’s wine bar, Indian Paradox, is not huge — but it’s much larger than the carts that populate India’s cities, feedings its inhabitants with an exceptional economy of space. Raghavan, an electrical engineer by training, grew up admiring it, and her bhel puri is a $7 treat whose multi-spiced flavors are secondary to the incredible mix of textures, a sort of crunch against a wet crunch.
The idea of a paradox sounds like an irresolvable quirk in some logical formula — if not something almost menacing, like a disruption in the very fabric of space-time. But in the case of San Francisco’s only Indian wine bar, it’s a welcome juxtaposition of wine and chaats, the savory bites eaten by hand — India’s equivalent of tapas, essentially — that comprise so much of its urban culture. Niches in the walls contain diminutive movie posters for Bollywood classics like Chennai Express and Mother India, and dancers hold court atop one shelving unit. It’s homey, sure, but to call Indian Paradox romantic might not do justice to the fact that the pairings take center stage.
Raghavan serves a happy hour street food menu on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 5 to 7 p.m., and everything except the sampler platters is $10 and under. You’re not going to find chicken vindaloo or anything like it here, and it’s best to start with dahi sev puri, cold semolina puffs made with yogurt and not one but two chutneys — one sweet, one savory — that are best eaten in a single bite. Paired with a high-acid Sangiovese that goes straight through the yogurt’s creaminess, they’re delightful. But, as Raghavan notes, they could almost be dessert.
One must-have is the sundal ($5), which she calls “Chennai beach food.” It’s a warm garbanzo salad studded with mango and shredded coconut alongside mustard seeds and curry leaves piled almost impossibly high in its vessel. The shish kebab is Lucknow-style, meaning it’s a very soft preparation of lamb roasted in a skillet with a healthy amount of tomato-cilantro-ginger chutney and just enough onion to clear the sinus passages of the perfumey spices. Accompanied by a lass of 2013 Bielsa Garnacha Navarra, it’s a stunner.
Having just celebrated her second year in business, Raghavan is glad that she’s no longer running the operation solo — but then she added a brunch menu, anyway. A clutch of street food dishes from around India, its star is probably the egg akuri, which is closer to a version of migas than to a standard American omelet. A turmeric-heavy Parsi dish made with scrambled eggs, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro and served with four buttery pieces of toasted brioche, it’s one of those dishes were you carefully monitor yourself to make sure every component comes out even.
A dabeli, a potato burger on brioche — although the traditional bun would be something more akin to Hawaiian bread — comes with tamarind-date chutney, some pomegranate to brighten it further, and sev. Tiny, deep-fried filaments of chickpea-flour noodles, they look a lot like long-grain rice but the effect they create reminds me of a distant cousin of Nombe’s ramen burger, which sadly only seems to be available these days at festivals like Outside Lands.
More to the point, this dabeli begs the question of why don’t we have a stronger tradition of crunchy toppings in America, which is supposed to be burgers’ home turf? There’s a paradox for you.
Indian Paradox, 258 Divisadero St., 415-598-5386 or indianparadoxsf.com