A country of vast cultural dimension, tradition, and ethnic diversity -- and the fact that its people speak up to 17 languages and close to 1,000 dialects -- India is living proof variety is the spice of life.
In no facet of Indian life is this more true that in its gastronomy, which offers a wide range of diversity as you travel from north to south. And yet, here in the States, many Indian restaurants serve only the rich, buttery dishes of northern India, or Punjabi-style fare, never attempting the more exotic fare of the southern climes.
At Madras Café in Pompano Beach, the specialty is South Indian cuisine, a distinctly different set of dishes. If tikka masala and tandoori are all you've ever known, the menu at Madras is a welcome departure from the usual.
See also: Madras Cafe in Pompano Beach (Photos)
The focus is thanks to owner Soye Thomas, who grew up in India's southwest state of Kerela. Thomas opened Madras Café a year after relocating to South Florida from India, where he studied hospitality management and worked for some of India's top hotel and resort companies, including Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, an Indian chain of hotels and resorts headquartered in Mumbai that includes the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
All in all, you'd never guess that Madras offers some of the area's best southern Indian cuisine. The restaurant has occupied the same end unit in a hidden strip mall off Powerline Road since opening its doors in 2003. The exterior looks uninviting; if you didn't know better, you might even assume it's closed. Additionally, many online reviews are quick to point out the restaurant's rude wait staff, poor service, and long wait times.
But from the moment you walk into Madras Café, you can smell it: more than a decade of spice-permeated everything.
Despite the shabby decor and the less-than-stellar staff, Madras Café gets one thing very right: the food. Dishes like dosa, papdi chaat, and biryani will instantly transport you to the streets of India.
The menu offers considerable variety. If you're heat-resistant or vegetable-averse, you might be a bit uncomfortable. Southern India is known for its spices -- and has been deemed as having the country's hottest regional fare. But it's even more vegetarian-friendly than its North Indian counterpart, and the list of spices becomes more exotic the farther south you go, providing a tang of flavor from tamarind, amchoor (dried mango), saunth (dried ginger), and anaardana (crushed pomegranate seeds).
At Madras, no meal is complete without rice in some form or another, combined with sambaar (a lentil dish tempered with whole spices and chillies), rasam (a hot-sour lentil soup dish), vegetables, and coconut-based meat dishes served with chutneys and poppadums (deep-fried, crispy lentil pancakes).
Thomas' most popular dishes are also those of southern India, like his dhai vada (lentil cakes dipped in a mild coriander- and cumin-spiced yogurt). Thick and savory, they're fried into dense doughnuts and pair well with the restaurant's syrupy-thick chutneys. In India, they're street snack fare, but at Madras, they're the perfect opening act.
There's also masala dosa, lacey-thin rice pancakes stuffed with spiced potatoes and onions. The large, crepe-like sheets are made from a batter of ground rice and pigeon peas that gives them a delicate, nutty flavor that marries well with the masala-spiced potato. Dip them in the sambar, here a sour-savory sauce made with tamarind and vegetables, or try the restaurant's vermillion-hued mango chutney.
The tamarind shrimp, another appetizer, is a dish from southeast India. Tender, fat tiger prawns are cooked and served in a thick tamarind glaze. The fruit's bold flavor accentuates the briny sweet shrimp, and the sauce leaves a mellow heat lingering on your palate, but not the kind to make you sweat.
Instead of a curry or tandoori dish -- although they're done well here -- opt for another South Indian specialty, the vegetable chettinad. A parade of tender vegetables is served in a thick, spicy sauce. The heated blast at first bite will leave a cool sheen of sweat across your cheeks, compliments of this pepper-based dish made with India's prized repertoire of spices, including sizable flecks of the country's indigenous black peppercorns and powder from dried red chilies.
Another regional staple, the kadai chicken, is done with Peshawari-style preparation: sautéed chicken breast in a fragrant tomato gravy flavored with onions, coriander, and capsicum. At Madras, it's executed with precision, arriving with chicken so tender that it nearly melts in your mouth and enough of the rich, velvety-smooth brown sauce that the leftover begs to be lapped up with pillowy chunks of naan.
End the meal with rasmalai, a Bengali dessert for which balls of paneer are cooked in a sugar syrup, then soaked in a simmering milk bath of malai, or clotted cream. It's served chilled, accented with the delicate flavor of cardamom.
The success of Madras Café has spawned a new venture, one that Thomas claims explains the long waits and subpar service.
"Madras is where everything started, but today, my catering business is where I put my focus," says Thomas. "Because so much of what I do is for the catering side of the business, my service in the restaurant is not always the best."
Thomas says Indian weddings are big business in South Florida. The lavish meals he serves are sometimes years in the making, with families who have enough money to feed thousands. And yet, it's the quality of the food at Madras that drives that business.
"It's where 90 percent of my business comes from," he says. "That is why my food has to be the best. I can't Americanize my dishes. It has to be authentic and as true to the flavors of India as possible."
Recently, Thomas opened the India Bar & Grill and 100 Scores Lounge in Wellington. This latest establishment, although it operates regular hours and serves a full menu, is really an outpost for Thomas' busy catering and event-planning business, Madras Management. The new space is expansive: The dining rooms can seat up to 100, the bar 30 more, and a private tasting room seats 20.
Lavish events, surly service, and shabby decor notwithstanding, for those who are in it for the food, the original is still a dining destination not to be overlooked.
"Madras is where it started," says Thomas. "Even my catering customers are surprised by the flavors here. Not everyone knows what true southern dishes are supposed to taste like."
And at Madras Café, they serve nothing but.
Dhai vada $6
Masala dosa $9
Tamarind shrimp $10.95
Kadai chicken $17
Vegetable chettinad $14
Madras Café is located at 1434 S. Powerline Road, Pompano Beach. Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday to Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Call 954-977-5434, or visit madrasmanagement.com.
Follow Nicole Danna on Twitter, @SoFloNicole.