To reach Street Kitchen, a colorful Indian outpost located down a hallway that smells of warm sugar and pretzels, you may stroll by a Tesla dealer, a Microsoft store with a virtual-reality playground and a Victoria’s Secret video wall streaming images of models wearing bras, panties and . . . and . . . Are those giant raven’s wings on their backs?
Tysons Corner Center is not my usual hunting ground, so I must confess that I’m feeling out of my element. I’m apparently not even dressed right for an evening trip to the mall. I’m not wearing sunglasses.
You might be wondering what made me venture into the bloodless heart of conspicuous consumption. It was a few declarative sentences, fat with affection, from economist Tyler Cowen, a fellow hunter of morsels that originate in lands far, far away. Last month, he wrote of Street Kitchen: “A dosa stand in Tysons! It’s not just good for Tysons, it’s really good period. In fact I’ll put it in the top tier of dosa places around.”
Dosas, it’s clear, have become social climbers. They’ve already migrated from the modest storefronts in Langley Park to Whole Foods to that gastro-toyland known as Union Market. Now, they’ve secured a counter in the same mall where you can drop a few thousand dollars on a flashy bauble, like a luxury watch, which you’ll never check because, duh, your phone.
Street Kitchen opened in the fall of 2015, at the same time as sister restaurant, American Tandoor, which are both in a sleek, polished hall populated with a Shilla Bakery and an Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop. The twin Indian concepts were first developed by Karan Singh, a former commercial airline pilot who still runs his own corporate aviation business in India and the United States. He moved to America five years ago and soon partnered with Lite Bite Foods, one of India’s largest hospitality groups, to develop American Tandoor and Street Kitchen. The eateries mark the first entry into the U.S. market for Lite Bite, but certainly not the last.
In designing his street-food concept, Singh flouts convention. In India, restaurants don’t usually blur the line between northern and southern dishes for the same reasons that restaurants in the States don’t: The cuisines differ in such fundamental ways — in textures, in techniques, in proteins, in heat — that there’s little overlap among diners who prefer one or the other. Yet, Street Kitchen gleefully mixes dosas (south India) with kati rolls (north India) for American mall shoppers who don’t know the difference or couldn’t care less. Singh dubs it “Indian for all!”
Mercifully, Street Kitchen doesn’t ask too much from its customers. Despite its counter-service focus, the stand has not adopted the kind of fast-casual customization that often leads to bowls so bloated with ingredients they verge on college-level pantry dumps. Street Kitchen provides only a handful of dosas, bowls, rolls and kebabs, each executed by chef Satinder Vij, a veteran of Lite Bite’s fine-dining operations, who knows the value of cross-utilizing ingredients on such a small, quick-serve menu.
If Street Kitchen has a precedent, it’s probably the sushi burrito concept, in which maki rolls, an invention that already borders on caricature, are fattened with fillings until the nori sheets become balloons set to pop. Don’t worry, Street Kitchen doesn’t trade in Hindenburg-size dosas. But the fillings here are sometimes spread thick and wide inside the fragile rice-and-lentil tubes, which can take the edge off a dosa, whose crackle is one of its principal pleasures. This must be a fundamental tension with the Street Kitchen creative team: how to satisfy a customer base that equates value with volume, not with the craft of a well-made crepe.
The Mysore masala dosa, as you’d expect, comes densely packed with a turmeric-tinted potato filling ignited with a chile-garlic chutney that threatens to immolate the dish. This is south Indian spicy, not Northern Virginia mall spicy. The heat will course through you like current, recharging your brain, your body, your faith in mall food.
The smashed avocado dosa, by contrast, has all the heft of air, its hollow interior concealing what looks like the remains of an underachieving iceberg salad. The buttered dosa, its batter griddled into a golden moonscape of craters, somehow sacrifices its brittleness on a trip from the kitchen to my table. Yet, no matter what the condition of either skin or filling, the dosas are usually revived with a swipe of the accompanying coconut chutney or a spoonful of lentil sambar, its liquidy mixture brightened with tamarind. It helps to eat with your hands, not the plastic cutlery: Tear off a crispy end of the dosa and use it to dig into the softer interior.
The kati rolls benefit from their paratha wrappers, these chewy house-made flatbreads that sometimes double as blankets for the chile-pepper fires smothered within them. Both the paratha and minty yogurt manage to corral the unruly star of their kati roll, a length of ground-lamb kebab, which spits fire. (The same kebab may prove too wild for the curry bowl, which offers no means to control that lamb.) The kati rolls even dare to wander onto contentious turf: One comes stuffed with crisped-up pieces of masala steak, a concession to diners in America, where beef consumption is not grounds for a prison sentence or worse. With all due respect to Hindus, I love that roll. And: I’m sorry.
Street Kitchen offers little in terms of amenities. Its “dining room” consists of a cluster of banquettes in the middle of the mall, their black tables frequently littered with the detritus of previous diners. The space’s only character are those shoppers walking the hallway, an ever-changing parade of fashions and faces. Indian for all. Indeed.
7943-B Tysons Corner Center, second level, Tysons Corner. 571-633-1820. streetkitchentysons.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Tysons Corner, with a half-mile walk to the stand.
Prices: $4 to $10 for dosas, kati rolls, kebabs and curry bowls; $2.50 to $3 for sides.