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In pursuit of Chennai's best Dhabas

Note: An edited version of this post originally appeared on the cover of The Hindu Metroplus, Chennai edition on 14.04.2016. You can read it here: http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Food/in-pursuit-of-chennais-best-dhabas/article8471670.ece


Ever since I moved to Chennai in 2013, it’s been a joyride for this Delhi-boy. I was thrilled to have a bevy of great food around me - from breakfast at Tiffen centres and ‘Hotels’ to legit dining options for cuisine from around the world. However, if there was one bland note in my journey, it was the taste of home - I was born in Punjab and spent my formative years in Delhi. For over two years I have searched the nooks and crannies of Chennai for places that could capture the essence of a Dhaba - flagbearer of food from the North.

Maybe it’s in the semantics

No one worth his Desi Ghee should misspell a Dhaba as Dhabba. Maybe Dhaaba, but certainly not the metaphorical conduit of disgrace. Semantic sensibilities aside, I have (empirically) been let down by this lot. Chennai’s most popular chain - Sachin ka Dhabba and Dhabba Express comes to mind.


Also dodgy are the ostensibly Punjabi eateries who insist on serving me Thandhoori Chicken or Dhall Tarka - if you can’t spell a Dal or a Tandoor, your culinary skills with them don’t inspire confidence.

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 folks still associate Dhabas with the highway. Many of the early truckers hailed from Punjab and hence the region’s cuisine is mirrored in the Dhaba fare, with many dishes centered around the Tandoor.


In pursuit of Chennai’s best Dhabas

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 down on the three best Dhabas which you should visit.


Icarus Punjabi Dhaba, Egmore

Recommended by MetroPlus Editor - Shonali Muthalaly, I was disbelievingly amused at the number of times I had driven past it, into the Egmore Museum Theatre. This is the kind of place that isn’t asking to be found. You climb up a staircase, besides the supermarket and into Icarus Punjabi Dhaba.


Tacky ceiling and peeling walls might put off some, but this is what a Dhaba ought to look like. Fortunately, they do have air-conditioning. I ran into Sherry Chaddha, who was running the show for his father, Jaswant SIngh Chaddha, the founder of Icarus Dhaba. I was delighted to share stories of growing up in Punjab with Sherry, who landed in Chennai a couple of weeks before from Jalandhar.


When Jaswant Singh Chaddha moved here nearly two decades ago for his
highway fittings business, he craved for the taste of his motherland. As the story goes, he started Icarus Dhaba on a whim to get an authentic Punjabi meal in the city. However, Icarus is more than just about food - Mr. Chaddha has been running  Bhangra classes and Punjabi language lessons out his eatery for over a decade; Icarus has become a beacon for Punjabi culture in Saada Chennai!


The ardor reflects their food. Paranthas are crisp and slightly charred, with a moist stuffing, redolent of Makhan (butter). “All our dairy products like butter, ghee and curd are made in-house with milk sourced from the suppliers to Shree Mithai!”, Sherry claims with a pride, emphasising quality. The lassi was austerely indulgent and without any fancy trimmings, I did miss the matchless layer of Malai that Bille Di Hatti (in Kamla Nagar, Delhi) has spoilt me for.


I also got some Dal Tadka and Rara Chicken, the signature dish at Icarus. Cousin to the glamorous Dal Makhni, Dal Tadka is the humble yellow dal with a finishing garnish. Icarus’s version is the kind of pick-me-up Dal-Chawal you could eat every day. Rara Chicken is a popular dish on Dhaba menus around Jalandhar. The name owes to the slow stir frying technique used to brown/Rara (dry in Punjabi) onions. The mellow richness of caramelized onions was perfect with the langar-like floury rotis. Also highly recommended is the Kheer - cooked with labour of  love, it is Mrs. Chaddha‘s recipe. “Sir ji this is best Kheer in the world”, chimes in Sherry. I wouldn’t dispute the claim of Maa ke haath ki Kheer!


As for it’s name - Icarus is derived from the legendary Baaz (falcon) that is often seen accompanying Guru Gobind Singh.


Go to Icarus 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



Lucky Da Dhaba, Pengundi

I came across Lucky da Dhaba on the popular Facebook group, Where Chennai Eats. When Rishabh Suri, a Punjabi friend from Delhi told me it’s right outside his office in Perungudi, I was enthused to make the drive. The Google Map’s location is a bit off; you will find Lucky da Dhabai in the row of eateries opposite RMZ Millenium Park. There’s no parking available on the busy road, so you will have to scout for parking space somewhere near the Taramani train station.


Started last year by Divya and Dev Parwani who also run Pind and Bhatinda Xpress in Velachery, the compact eatery borrows the kitsch decor of its brethren -  a charpoy hugs the wall, jostling for space with vintage rotary phones mounted on neon-lit shelves. Indeed, space is a constraint here and things get noticeably stuffy as the lone split air conditioner puffs and and pants against the sticky Chennai evening. There’s no washroom either.








We were greeted by Mr. Tinku Das - Lucky da Dhaba’s cheery manager, who was keen on recommending us nearly everything on the menu. Conspicuous absence of Punjabis running the dhaba was an ominous sign. Our waiter hardly spoke any Hindi or English, and it took a bit of pantomiming to get more rotis.


Lamentably, our suspicions turned out be true - food at Lucky Da Dhaba, lavished as it was with ghee and cream, was a hit and miss. The Paranthas were crumbly and it’s stuffing limp. Our Dal Makhani, served in a cute little baalti, turned out slimy and unpalatably spiked with salt. The saving grace was a satiating Chicken Patiala, recommended by Divya. We got some juicy, succulent pieces of chicken in rich cashew nut gravy. We skipped the Chaas-in-a-beer-bottle and got ourselves some serviceable Kulhad di Lassi.


Go here for: Only if you are on that side of town - go for their rich Chicken Patiala and Lassi.


Babal da Dhaba, Poonamalee High Road

It was at the IFCA Chef’s Conference last year that I first heard about Babal da Dhaba. In between the enthralling culinary lectures, I bumped into Samir - a convivial Punjabi munda, born and raised in the city. Samir was a training to be pastry chef at IHM Chennai. Upon seeing me distressed about the lack of authentic Punjabi eateris in the city, he pointed me to Babal da Dhadba, a place his family had been frequenting for over a decade.


Situated next to the Bombay Halwa House, its neon signboard can be hard to spot on the busy Poonamlee High Road. Fortunately, there’s oodles of parking space inside the compound. Babal da Dhaba 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 Dhaba is stuck in a time warp.


The journey began 18 years ago when Mr. Babbal Singh moved to Chennai from Delhi. It’s usually packed at dinner-time and you’ll often spot the jovial Mrs. Anu Singh at the counter. When I tell her about my search for Delhi-like Punjabi food, she beams back “Beta, we are from Karol Bagh only”. We happily chat about kulfis at the the Karol Bagh landmark Roshan di Hatti.


Their Dal Makhani is everything it should be - silken and earthy from hours of slow cooking. Babal da Dhaba makes, unquestionably, one of the best Phulkas in Chennai - soft as a baby’s bum, they’re perfect for scooping up the Dal and their stellar Butter Chicken. Also recommended is the slightly charred and subtly spiced Tandoori Chicken, which skips the overdose of food coloring 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 caramelized scrapes at the bottom of the milk pan.




Go to Babal da Dhaba for: More of a restaurant than a Dhaba, but the best Punjabi food in Chennai. Top notch Dal Makhani and Butter Chicken with Phulkas. End with Rabri.

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