What a kick to discover you can get Indian street food in Michigan! There's no street, of course — this is Michigan, and we try not to populate our streets unless we're in our vehicles. Neehee's is, in fact, selling street food in a strip mall, an irony that seems to bother the multitude of Indian families who flock there not at all.
It's always a quandary for the world traveler whose stomach is unaccustomed to the bugs of foreign lands. Should you chance that hand-held delight sold by a street vendor or by the little kids that crowd around arriving buses? More than often, we don't, fearing digestive woes, and miss out on some fabulous and authentic treats. Noted gourmand Calvin Trillin once flew all the way to Singapore when he heard that the authorities there had rounded up the street sellers and put them into a government-inspected mall. For the first time, Trillin could indulge his street-food jones with no worries about aftereffects.
And so can we.
I counted 96 dishes for sale at Neehee's, not counting the drinks and house-made ice creams. It's a bewildering array, incorporating street snacks from all over the subcontinent. You could just stick with the familiar samosas, dosas and pakoras, but I advise you to read the big posters around the room that describe the different dishes and their origins, and go from there.
Notice that many of the dishes are not for eating out of hand, as you might expect with street food; you need a plate and a fork. Take dahi samosa chaat, for example. Chaat refers to a wide variety of mixture-type snacks, and Neehee's has 25 of them. The dahi samosa chaat mashes up samosas and tops them with yogurt (dahi), chutneys and onions. It looks like a mess — like what a child would want to do with samosas — but it's satisfying.
Behl is another chaat, of crisp puffed rice (like Rice Krispies) mixed with chutneys, tomatoes, red onions and potatoes. Eat it quickly so the rice doesn't get soggy. This was the hottest of the dishes we tried.
Uttapam is a thick rice and lentil pancake, with or without ingredients mixed into the batter. Neehee's serves eight with various toppings, including a pizza uttapam (they're into fusion). I liked the onion chili uttapam, which uses jalapeños; best bet might be the mini-uttapam platter of five different types, including one with cashews, pistachios and almonds.
The space at Neehee's is extremely small — five uncovered tables — and unpretentious; a lot of the business is carryout; you eat out of polystyrene with plastic forks; you get your water from a yellow-and-red Igloo cooler. Somehow it's especially impressive to see huge, paper-thin dosas served under those circumstances. They're a dramatic 30 inches across, curved into a tube and eaten plain or stuffed with potatoes, vegetables and more. I tried the paneer bhurji dosa, containing a tightly rolled mixture of paneer (like cottage cheese), cumin and turmeric. It's probably not the most interesting; next time I'd get "Gun Powder Masala Dosa" with lentils and red chili powder.
Don't pass up the Indo-Chinese dishes, which, a poster straightforwardly proclaims, "correspond loosely, if at all, with authentic Chinese food preparation." Chinese dishes were first adapted to Indian tastes by the Chinese community in Calcutta, spread all over the subcontinent, and have since followed the Indian diaspora worldwide. One dish in the repertoire is even called "American Chop Suey." I loved "Gobi 65," breaded fried cauliflower in chili sauce. It had a rich, tomato-y flavor that canceled the cauliflower but made up for it in the sauce.
Also wonderful were methi gota, fritters popular in Gujarat. Fresh fenugreek leaves are mixed with chickpea flour, garlic and green chilies and deep-fried. Co-owner Rikesh Patel says he eats these for breakfast on his day off.
The $2.50 mango lassi at Neehee's is as good as anyone's, and I would like to try all the house-made ice creams — there's fig, kesar pista (saffron pistachio), bright-yellow mango and chikoo, which uses sun-dried fruit of the sapodilla tree, shipped from India. Wikipedia says it tastes malty but I found it more like banana — delicious in any case.
Neehee's is a great change from the Indian food we've come to love, though the prices are better than the atmosphere, for now. In August it will move a couple stores down the street — that is, down the strip mall — to quarters four times larger, the better to accommodate the crowds. A second location is at 35203 Grand River, Farmington; 248-471-0604. Both are open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. every day except, as they say in India, "Tuesdays Closed."
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.