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Round one of the 13 dishes on Hyderabad House's non-veg menu.

Image: Alice Levitt

Unless you care an uncommon amount about both South Indian food and eating to excess, chances are you don't know that two restaurants on Westheimer Road serve all-you-can-eat lunches on banana leaves every Sunday. It's the lazy person's buffet: You needn't budge to eat your fill of a range of dishes. On Saturday, Yaal Tiffins uses this concept for a slew of Sri Lankan dishes, then switches to South Indian ones on Sunday. Chain Hyderabad House, which has three links in the Houston area, typically does its raju gari bojanam meal on both Saturday and Sunday, but at the Westheimer location, it only happens on Sunday. That means two restaurants do precisely the same esoteric feast at exactly the same time (noon to 3 p.m.) only once a week. How to choose? Read on.

Ambience & Service

Yaal Tiffins: The room always feels slightly dark here, which lends an air of formality. Guests are encouraged to eat with their hands, so a pair of sinks reserved for the task just beyond the dining room awaits. Silverware is provided, however, so for those who can't be trusted not to rub their eyes with curry-spiced fingers, there is little danger. 

Servers' facility with English varies widely. Some are able to describe dishes to noobs in depth, others are mostly limited to sheepishly asking "Rice?" before plopping it on your banana leaf. But even they do so with a smile. 

Hyderabad House: We were a bit surprised at just how casual this restaurant is. Menus are posted above the counter, meaning the initial experience is more fast food than full-service. The very kind lady at the counter seemed a bit surprised when I ordered the buffet, but once I chose between vegetarian and non-veg options, she handed me a menu and began the meal. Since I was the only one partaking (there was only one other family dining while I was there, and their meal was à la carte), service was completely personalized. At every turn, she asked if I'd like more of anything and easily answered any questions I had.

There was no fancy sink for washing up and the sectioned buckets from which she served the dishes seemed less fancy than at Yaal, but there's no arguing with a 1:1 service ratio.

Advantage: Split decision—Yaal Tiffins is a more pleasant place to hang out (though Hyderabad House has music videos), but the service at Hyderabad impressed.

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We saw about nine items grace the leaf at Yaal Tiffins.

Image: Alice Levitt

Food

Yaal Tiffins: Secretly love Rice-A-Roni but too embarrassed to eat it? Yaal's sticky khichadi (as the name suggests, it inspired British kedgeree) will fulfill your fantasies, but with peas, carrots and chiles woven between the grains to make you feel like a grown-up. A vada, essentially a savory doughnut made with lentils, is another kid-style treat.

Both a pappadum (identified on the menu by the Tamil Nadu appalam) and a portion of dosa so soft that it recalls injera, are provided to scoop up daal and minty chutney. Besides the khichadi, both plain white and onion-heavy yogurt rice are on offer to soak up the sauces of the day's curries. On the day I visited, those included dark chicken curry, a veggie stew tangy with tamarind, and curried potatoes. 

Tiny silver bowls were filled first with tamarind-based soup rasam, then with the dessert of the day, a warm pudding similar to kheer but with shreds of coconut in place of rice. 

Not quite everything listed on the menu materialized, even after I asked a server if I'd seen everything available. This was merciful, as dishes came out quickly in the beginning and I was uncomfortably full. Some, such as the chicken, were quite spicy, but on the whole, I found that the flavors lacked the subtlety of both the dinner and Sri Lankan buffets I'd enjoyed at Yaal previously.

Hyderabad House: The order can be a bit confusing. Both intensely sweet gulab jamun and sticky, creamy pistachio halwa come out on the banana leaf along with starters. Put them aside—they'll go better with the free cup of coffee you have coming later, anyway.

Start instead with the vankay chutney, a puddle of eggplant dip that recalls Indian-spiced baba ghanoush. Use a pappadum, fried rice flour snacks in fun shapes and colors, or chewy fried bread batura to scoop up that and a sweet-and-spicy chile paste. Or use them all, as I did. Fried pieces of herb-crusted chicken called natu kodi vepudu also worked just fine for dipping.

I saved the mound of chile-flecked pulav rice for the curries to come, which turned out to be a good move. The creamy, garlicky goat Chettinad was my favorite, but all three stews I tried, including meaty, herbaceous Andhra chicken curry and fish curry chepala pulusu in a thin tamarind-and-tomato sauce, were delectable. Indo-Chinese Chicken 65 was deeply colored but not as spicy as I'm used to, the only meat dish I didn't consider a score. I had to ask specifically about the spinach daal, but once it appeared, I was glad it did.

Conclusion

If there were no Hyderabad House, we would be regulars at comfortable, very good Yaal Tiffins. But there is. And while the storefront isn't particularly welcoming, the variety and depth of flavor of the offerings gives it the obvious advantage. Many items at Yaal tasted similar when I visited, blending together throughout the meal. At Hyderabad, each dish had a distinct personality that has me salivating for more as I write. I can hardly wait to return for the vegetarian menu so I can sample a whole new set of spicy delicacies.

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