In pursuit of Chennai’s best dhabas

Aloo paratha at a dhaba Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Aloo paratha at a dhaba Photo: Thulasi Kakkat  


Delhi-boy AMIT PATNAIK scours the city to find three authentic dhabas

Chennai has been a joyride for me, a Delhi boy, ever since I moved here two years ago. I am thrilled about the bevy of great food around me in this city — from dosa breakfasts at little tiffin centres to dining options for world cuisine. However, if there is one sour note in my journey, it is missing the taste of home. Born in Punjab, I spent my childhood years in Delhi. For over two years, I have diligently searched though this city’s nooks and crannies for places that capture the essence of a real dhaba, a flag-bearer of food from the North.

For me, the quintessential dhaba must reflect its heritage of rustic comfort food, which a weary traveller can bank upon. After eating at dhabas around Chennai, I zeroed in on three authentic dhabas, and investigated their menu and their stories.

Icarus Punjabi Dhaba, Egmore

Recommended by a friend, this is the kind of place that isn’t asking to be found. You climb a staircase tucked beside a supermarket, and walk into Icarus Punjabi Dhaba.

The tacky ceiling and peeling walls might put off some, but this is what a dhaba ought to look like. I run into Sherry Chaddha, who runs the show for his father, Jaswant Singh Chaddha, the founder.

When Jaswant Singh Chaddha moved here nearly two decades ago for his highway fittings business, he craved the taste of his motherland. He started Icarus Dhaba on a whim, mainly so he could get an authentic Punjabi meal in the city. However, over the years, Icarus has grown to represent more than just food — Chaddha has also been hosting bhangra classes and Punjabi language lessons from his eatery for over a decade.

This ardour reflects in the food. Paranthas are crisp and slightly charred, redolent with desi makhan (butter). “All our dairy products like butter, ghee and curd are made in-house,” Sherry says. The lassi is indulgent, but relatively austere with no fancy trimmings.

I also order dal tadka and rara chicken, the signature dish at Icarus. Cousin to the glamorous dal makhni, dal tadka is a humble yellow dal. Icarus’ version is the kind of pick-me-up dal you can eat everyday. Rara chicken is a popular dish on dhaba menus around Jalandhar. The name comes from the slow stir-frying technique used to brown/rara (dry in Punjabi) onions. The mellow richness of caramelised onions is perfect with the langar-style floury rotis. Also highly recommended is the kheer — a labour of love, it is Mrs. Chaddha’s recipe.

As for its name, Icarus is derived from the legendary Baaz (falcon) that is often seen accompanying Guru Gobind Singh.

Go to Icarus Punjabi Dhaba for: Ignore the 150-odd dishes in the menu and order the household staples of paranthas, dal tadka and their signature rara chicken and kheer

Address: 60, Pantheon Road, Egmore

Tel: 2841 8104

Babal Da Punjabi Dhaba, Poonamallee High Road

I first heard about Babal Da Punjabi Dhaba at the IFCA Chef’s Conference last year. Situated next to Bombay Halwa House, despite its neon signboard, this dhaba can be hard to spot on busy Poonamallee High Road. Fortunately, they have oodles of parking space inside the compound. This is what you what you would call a ‘family restaurant’ in Punjab and Delhi, at least back in the 90s. That was an era of comfortable seating under amber lights, amidst liveried waiters scurrying around with finger bowls. No pretentious food memes or quirky decor necessary. Indeed, with old Hindi Songs chiming in the background and frames of yesteryear stars adorning the walls, Babal Da Punjabi Dhaba is stuck in a time warp.

Their journey began 18 years ago when Babbal Singh moved to Chennai from Delhi. It’s usually packed at dinner time and you’ll often spot his wife Anu Singh at the counter.

Their dal makhani is everything it should be — silken and earthy from hours of slow cooking. Babal Da Punjabi Dhaba makes, unquestionably, one of the best phulkas in Chennai. Soft and fluffy, they’re perfect for scooping up their dal and stellar butter chicken. Also recommended is the slightly charred, subtly spiced tandoori chicken, which skips the overdose of food colouring and masala that often plague the ‘national bird of Punjab’ in the city. The lassi is huge and comes with a fair a bit of adornments, but I’d rather end a meal with the rabri. Do ask for a bit of khurchan — the caramelised scrapes at the bottom of the milk pan.

Go to Babal Da Punjabi Dhaba for: More of a restaurant than a dhaba, but some of the best Punjabi food in Chennai. Top notch dal makhani and butter chicken with phulkas. End with rabri.

Address: Poonamallee High Road, Opposite Hotel Abu Sarovar Portico

Tel: 2836 0625

Lucky Da Dhaba, Perungudi

I come across Lucky Da Dhaba on popular Facebook group, Where Chennai Eats. Spurred by the comments, I decided to make the journey to Perungudi. Lucky Da Dhaba is in the row of eateries opposite RMZ Millenia Park.

Started last year by Divya and Dev Parwani, who also run Pind and Bhatinda Xpress in Velachery, the compact eatery is unapologetically kitsch — a charpoy hugs the wall, jostling for space with vintage rotary phones mounted on neon-lit shelves. Space is a constraint here and things get noticeably stuffy as the lone split air-conditioner puffs and sputters against the sticky Chennai evening. This is strictly no frills: they don’t even have a washroom!

We are greeted by Tinku Das, the manager. The food, lavished with ghee and cream, is a hit and miss. The paranthas were crumbly and it’s stuffing limp. Our dal makhani, served in a cute little baalti, turned out unpalatably spiked with salt.

Fortunately, the meal improved after that. The saving grace was a satiating chicken Patiala: juicy, succulent and satisfying, served in rich cashew-nut gravy. We skipped the chaas-in-a-beer-bottle and got ourselves some serviceable kulhad di lassi.

Go to Lucky Da Dhaba for: Only if you are on that side of town — for their rich chicken Patiala and lassi.

Address: MGR Salai, Kandanchavadi, Perungudi

What is a dhaba?

The modern-day dhaba is believed to have sprung up along the Grand Trunk Road, running from Peshawar (now in Pakistan) through Amritsar to Kolkata, as pit-stops for truckers plying on the route. Most people still associate dhabas with the highway. Many of the early truckers hailed from Punjab, and hence the region’s cuisine is mirrored in dhaba fare, with many dishes centred around the tandoor oven.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 19, 2018 2:37:48 AM |

Next Story