Everyone knows Pittsburgh once thrived as a city of immigrants. This led to rich ethnic cultures in its neighborhoods and surrounding towns — or actually, successive waves of cultures. Bloomfield was German before it was Italian, and former-synagogues-turned-churches tell of the Jewish heritage in the Hill District. Today, church kitchens are the last redoubt of those immigrants' native food traditions, cooking up pierogies, haluski and entire weekend-long Greek-food festivals.
But as the last generation of those immigrants puts down its wooden spoons, it will be interesting to see how local culture adapts. One early sign that the old patterns of cultural succession continue to repeat themselves is the Indian Community Center in Carnegie. It's located in a former Italian Catholic church that was abandoned after the 2004 flooding from Hurricane Ivan, and it includes an Indian restaurant, Café Delhi.
Actually, Café Delhi is not quite a full-service restaurant; you order at the cashier, fast-food style, off a big menu posted on the wall. But it does feature more than a bare minimum of decor, windows overlooking an attractive outdoor courtyard, a cooler of Indian sweets and, best of all, an extensive menu that spans the subcontinent. Without doing a precise accounting, it's hard to say whether northern or southern cuisine dominates, but it covers a lot of tempting territory, from dosa to biryani to palak paneer.
Indian street snacks have become more popular in Pittsburgh. Café Delhi offers two chaats and two puris. A puri is served cold and, like a chaat, offers a jumble (in a good way) of flavors and textures. But where chaats may be best compared to nachos, our bhel puri was more reminiscent of Chex mix. The combination of puffed rice grains, dry noodles, potatoes, chilis, and mint and tamarind chutneys had the crunchy texture of a breakfast cereal but the unmistakable aromatic savor of Indian herbs and spices, studded with starchy spuds.
Chili paneer consisted of an appetizer-size portion of firm yet creamy slices of Indian yogurt cheese in a fiery sauce set ablaze by both red and green chilis. This dish is not for the spice-intolerant, but those who can take the heat will appreciate the interplay of the mild paneer and assertive chili sauce.
The Golden Arches didn't invent chicken nuggets; deep-fried chicken morsels are, if not a universal snack, then certainly widespread. India does them as Chicken 65, an addictive (and, we might add, highly beer-friendly) finger food flavored with ginger, cayenne, mustard seed and vinegar. Cafe Delhi's version was moist and tender on the inside while the fried coating delivered a pleasing combination of savor, spice and tang, especially which spritzed with the accompanying lemon wedge.
Channa Bhatura was a sort of savory chickpea stew, thickened with potato and gently spiced with onion, ginger, garlic and cumin, served with flaky fried flatbread. This is one of those hearty vegetarian dishes that is so robustly flavored, we defy anyone to miss the meat.
In addition to palak paneer, the creamed spinach and cheese classic, Delhi offers spinach lamb and spinach chicken, which offer morsels of meat in a similarly rich, smooth spinach puree. The lamb was tender yet meaty, and its savory juices enriched the spinach. The chunks of goat meat in the goat biryani were tender, too, exceeding expectation, and the sauce served alongside was so richly flavorful that Jason wanted to eat it by the spoonful. Angelique felt the same way about the sambar served with the idli (little rice flour buns). Essentially a vegetable soup enhanced with Indian seasonings, it included satisfyingly large pieces of carrot and bell pepper.
Many ethnic cuisines have adapted their native bread forms to American wrap sandwiches, but Café Delhi's spicy seekh kebab wrap revealed how ideally suited Indian naan is for these purposes. Between a tortilla and a pita in thickness, naan provided a bit of chewy cushion to spiced, ground lamb, grilled onion and lettuce, while mint chutney added zest.
We're thrilled with the former Holy Souls Church's reuse as an Indian Cultural Center, and even more excited that Café Delhi features a top-notch Indian kitchen. We hope it will become a meeting place not only for some of our area's newest immigrants, but also for those who've long since made Pittsburgh their home.