"Is there meat in that?" my friend asked as I put in an order for a Buddha burger at Pondicheri last week. "Wait," she said, before I could reply. "It's called a 'Buddha burger,' so I'm guessing no." She wrinkled her nose, laughing at me, before she went on to order a meatless dish of her own: a seafood masala dosa. Considering we'd both been lured to Pondicheri that night by a different dosa—one stuffed with lamb kebab and posted to the restaurant's Instagram account—we'd both taken surprising detours when it came down to actually ordering.
That's the thing about Pondicheri, which has routinely and wholeheartedly celebrated since January 2012, where you're just as likely to encounter thoughtful, creative, interesting vegetarian dishes—dishes that lure you away from, say, lamb kebab dosas after just a quick scan of the menu—as you are meat-based entrees. It's a model I wish more restaurants would adopt, though credit where it's due to places such as Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's, Brasil and Hobbit Cafe, which have been offering excellent vegetable-based options for years, as well as newer restaurants such as Oxheart and Triniti that give vegetables the same care and attention as ribeye and foie gras.
But back to that Buddha burger, which reminded me of an oversized dabeli or vada pav, though in construction as opposed to taste or ingredients. After all, the Buddha burger is a Jain-style vegetarian dish, according to Pondicheri's menu, and therefore couldn't include the primary ingredient in dabeli and vada pav: potatoes.
Jainism also restricts its followers from eating garlic, onions and eggplant in addition to following a strict vegetarian diet. Dabeli (which are best found in Houston at the Bansuri Indian Food Corner truck) feature fritters made from a sweet-and-spicy potato mix tucked inside fluffy buns, while its cousin vada pav is just straight up spicy. Dabeli usually have a crunchy, sweet blend of peanuts, pomegranate seeds or other toppings between the fritter and bun, whereas vada pav typically forgoes the fancy topping in favor of sheer fritter size (which can be quite large).
The Buddha burger leans more towards the vada pav end of things in that regard, with a massive patty composed of black garbanzo beans, walnuts and paneer tucked inside a large, fresh-baked pumpkin bun. On top of the patty is a schmear of cumin yogurt that ties it all together and a few leaves of peppery arugula in a nod to the American style of burger construction. And much like an American burger, you'll be quite full by the time you get to the last few bites of Buddha; in fact, I couldn't even finish my own, let alone the side of delightfully cool, crunchy "kachumber" salad with plenty of cucumbers, mango and peanuts in a spicy-sweet dressing.
I'll hope to catch the lamb kebab dosa special the next time Pondicheri has it on offer, but as long as the restaurant keeps turning out intriguing vegetarian dishes, I can't promise I won't be swayed away from meat again—Meatless Monday or not.