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September 4, 2008 10:04 AM

We're hot on Chili's

Posted by Nancy Leson

I owe Tom Stritikus a masala dosa -- for turning me on to Chili's Deli & Mart:

If Tom hadn't for sent me an email, I'd have never set foot in Chili's. But he knew that. "Never in a million years would you walk into this place," he wrote, describing a shop that "looks like a sketchy package-store on the Ave." One open every day but Sunday from 9 a.m. till 11 p.m., selling "tube socks, Kool cigarettes and bad wine." He failed to mention the incense, candy and phone cards, or the gyros, tacos and French fries. Because that's not why you should go to Chili's. This is why:

Having taken Tom's advice and checked the place out myself, I strongly disagree with him about the sketchy part. He must have been talking about that storefront-by-the-bus-stop exterior (Chili's sits just off the northeast corner of 50th and University Way). What I found inside was an exceedingly clean convenience store with a kitchenette run by a pair of friendly sisters-in-law -- Thamilarasi and Kala:

Thamilarasi's sister, Anila Swamy, has owned the place for 14 years and the family [including their father, Sam Arumugam -- whom I orgininally and mistakenly noted here was the owner] has only recently began preparing and selling the foods of their native country: dishes we don't see as much of here on the west side of the lake as we do on the Eastside. This is food that may be familiar to those of us crazy about Sri Lankan cuisine (count me in), but not so much to those who think of "Indian food" only in terms tandoori meats, saag paneer and butter chicken.

At Chili's, you'll find such South Indian staples as idli: soaked and ground rice and dal, blended into a lightly fermented batter, steamed into cakes and commonly served as breakfast fare. And Tom's favorite, Masala dosai: large crepes, made to order, filled with a gently spiced, turmeric-tinged saute of onion and cooked potato -- as seen in my photo, above.

Dosai, idlis and my favorite, Chili's "Regular Plate," a combo platter topping out the menu-pricing-scale at $6.99, are served with housemade chutneys and sambar -- a fragrant soup rife with vegetables, spices and lentils). You may eat in, on Costco sheet-pans, at a table in the back. Or take-out, to enjoy at home later:

"I took four of my staff there today," wrote Tom. "When we walked in, I could see incredulity on their faces. I think if I weren't their boss, they would have walked out. I ordered for them. And, after the meal, one of my staff members said, `I think I have a new favorite restaurant.'"

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