By Betsy DiJulio
I cannot think of another food establishment that I have patronized three times in a month, not counting my daily stop at Starbucks for a venti Green Tea Soy Frappuccino, no Classic Syrup, no Whip. That is, except Tamarind. And it may have been closer to three times in two weeks, a luxury afforded in part by Spring Break. But school holiday or not, I wouldn’t have made that repeated trek from Virginia Beach had the food not been so seductive.
I remember when there were no Indian restaurants in the 757 and experiencing years of withdrawal after moving here from Nashville until the first Nawab opened near the erstwhile Military Circle Mall. Now, we have many establishments that offer delicious vegan delicacies, most notably Rajput in Norfolk. Still, there is only one that specializes in chaat or Indian street food: Tamarind.
I knew of Tamarind by reputation, but it is off my beaten path and I had just never made the effort. I think I was also turned off by a description of food served on single use plates. I’m not sure why this tiny restaurant beckoned recently, but in late April I drove directly there on a Saturday after yoga, and a few days later on a weekday, and not much later on a Sunday, all for lunch.
The idea of savory snacks—typically served from stalls and carts—appeals to me greatly. I lost my sweet tooth years ago and I prefer eating light. But I love fresh ingredients prepared with little oil; complex layers of tingly and aromatic flavors; comingled textures; and eye-popping presentations with bright, rich colors, even if the backdrop is a single-use bowl or plate and a plastic tray. Tamarind checks all of my boxes.
And it doesn’t hurt that the owner, who mans the front counter to take orders, is affable and helpful, nor that the service is swift, and that the establishment, though diminutive—and crowded on weekdays—is unselfconsciously stylish. Cilantro-green walls, red and green seating with light wood accents, a long, horizontal contemporary display niche, and an accent wall of text—menu items in a bold font of green, white, and dark gray—all add up to trying, but not too hard. However, on each day I visited, I chose to dine at one of the sidewalk tables because, though the parking lot view leaves much to be desired, the weather was pleasant.
The just-varied-enough menu features Traditional Chaat, Specialty Chaat I and II, Non-Vegetarian (but halal) Chaat, Healthy Lite Chaat (though it is all pretty darn healthy and lite), and Beverages. Items that are vegetarian can easily be made vegan with the omission of yogurt, and it you won’t miss it a bit.
The chaat I enjoyed were sev usal, lettuce bhel and sev puri, all a very reasonable $6.99. But I have heard from a reliable source that, for a dollar more, the dosa masala (lentil crepe stuffed with potatoes and potatoes) “is life.”
The sev usal, a rich red-orange soup-like dish, features yellow peas, flavorful broth, and chopped onions garnished with sev (spiced and fried thin gram flour noodles which soften in the broth), a trio of chutneys (coriander, tamarind, and spicy garlic), bright green herby cilantro, and glistening chopped tomatoes. If one chutney is good, then three are better, as each brings something special to the table.
Lettuce Bhel is billed as a mix of crispy puffed rice and lentil flour savories tossed with chopped onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and special sauces. They were special indeed, as was the diced green apple. When I asked if that’s what I was tasting, the proprietor smiled and said, “Maybe.” But the menu doesn’t mention one of the most delectable aspects of the dish: a cascade of ultra-thin sev with a texture akin to shredded wheat that blankets the dish like buttered cracker crumbs on a southern casserole.
The Sev Puri might have been the most “fancy” in its presentation, but it also left me feeling a little hungry, so I recommend pairing it with a second selection. The puri (fried oval puffs of air) are delicately filled with dainty amounts of boiled potatoes and onion, topped with both green and tamarind chutneys, and garnished with brilliant green cilantro leaves and sliced scallions.
Tamarind is a street smart trifecta of taste, texture and temptation.
Tamarind Street Food, 415 N. Military Highway, Suite 27, Norfolk, 757.942.5611, TamarindNorfolk.com