It’s 6:30 on a Wednesday evening and Paper Dosa is packed. Groups of people stand in the hallway or at the host stand, waiting for a table. The smell of frying onion, cumin, cilantro and mint fills the air while I sip a glass of Vinho Verde. A friend and I are lucky enough to get two seats at the bar, overlooking the kitchen. Our placemats are lost beneath an array of appetizers. We begin with handfuls of crispy pakora: thinly sliced red onion and jalapeño battered in rice flour, which we dip into a creamy eggplant chutney with a heady, earthy flavor. Next comes the cashew calamari, surprisingly not fried. Instead, discs of sliced squid are buried in a thick, spicy cashew curry. The flavor pairs beautifully with the strong, pungent ginger of a cold glass of Thistly Cross Ginger Cider. We lose ourselves in the spicy mango and goat cheese salad, crunching on colorful watermelon radishes and walnuts. Every so often we bite into lusciously ripe cubes of mango coated in spicy red chili.
Chef Paulraj Karuppasamy and his wife and business partner, Nellie Tischler, have found a home for their first restaurant and Santa Fe’s only eatery dedicated to south Indian cuisine. The couple spent the last year catering for private events and putting on pop-up dinners across town in an effort to build followers. After several events and an amazing 32 consecutive pop-up dinners at Café Fina, Paper Dosa has earned a reputation for its flavorful cuisine. The pair also received support from BizMIX, an annual startup and business plan competition that teaches aspiring business owners about financing and how to plan and pitch their business. The organization awarded the couple $13,000 towards opening their restaurant and in April they took over the old Mail Call space on Cordova Road, next to Maria’s.
Paulraj (or Paul, for short) was born in Tamil Nadu in the south of India. There were no restaurants, so food was a big part of each day—his mother would begin cooking at 5:00 every morning. They lived across the street from a market where his father bought ingredients three times a week. Everything was made fresh from scratch each day and leftovers were thrown out for the dogs, cats and chickens. “Paul’s mom makes food that’s spectacularly bright,” Nellie says with a smile. “There’s always a little punch to everything, so Paul got that from his mom.”
After attending culinary school in India and working as a chef for a cruise line, Paul landed in San Francisco at Dosa, a south Indian restaurant that had just opened up. Paul had never worked cooking Indian food before. “Until I came to San Francisco I was not much into south Indian cooking,” Paul says. But as he experimented with new techniques and spices, he began to miss the food he grew up eating. “I really fell in love with south Indian cooking,” he says. At the same time, he fell in love with Nellie, who was working as a server. They got married two years later and eventually made their way to Santa Fe, where Nellie grew up.
The white truffle masala dosa looks like a giant enchilada. But when it arrives at the bar, I can see that it’s delightfully thin, delicate and crispy. Fermented rice and lentil batter is artfully crafted into a giant crepe and then rolled around the masala, a stuffing of spiced potatoes blended with white truffle oil. Across the top of the plate three dipping sauces are lined up: sambar, coconut chutney and tomato chutney. The sambar, a hearty lentil and vegetable stew, is my favorite. I tear off pieces of dosa and dip them into the stew, searching for chunks of crispy vegetables. The coconut chutney sends my palate soaring in the opposite direction, cool yet spicy and chock full of fresh cilantro.
South Indian cuisine is distinct from the cuisine in the north of the country. In the south, the climate is tropical and hot, so the food is based on rice and lentils, instead of the wheat-based dishes found in the north. The food, cooked in coconut and gingelly oil (Indian sesame oil), is light and fresh. Whole or ground spices and herbs are heated in hot oil or ghee and added to a dish, a process known as tempering. The hot fat of the oil extracts the aroma and flavor of the spices and herbs, enhancing their presence in a dish.
The couple envisioned a menu that was simple, streamlined and reasonably priced, so they included street food like dosas, vadas (doughnut shaped lentil fritters) and pakora. Prices range from $4 to $9 for appetizers, $9 to $13 for dosas and $13 to $18 for curries. Each dish is powerfully flavored and some are very spicy. “Heat is a big element in south Indian cuisine,” Paul explains. He uses an array of ingredients like mustard seeds, curry leaves and Thai chili in addition to generous amounts of ginger, garlic, onion and tomato.
The list of ingredients for the chicken curry alone is impressive: cilantro, mint, ginger, garlic, Thai chili, habanero, cumin, coriander, poppy seed, peppercorn, garam masala, bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamom. The restaurant goes through an incredible 60 bunches of cilantro each day. The food is made from scratch and can easily accommodate vegetarian, vegan and gluten free customers. “For south Indian cuisine you need spicy, tangy, bitter, salty and a little bit of sweet,” Paul says. “You’ll find those five flavors in multiple dishes.”
It has always been the couple’s dream to open their own restaurant. “I know the kitchen,” Paul says, “and Nellie knows the floor.” But Paul was hesitant about opening a business in Santa Fe, where no one has exclusively offered south Indian cuisine before. The market is also much smaller than in San Francisco. “It’s hard to sell this business,” he explains. “People don’t know what south Indian cuisine is. If I can get them to try it once, they’ll become a fan. But how can I get them to try it?”
“We knew that once people tried the food, it wouldn’t be hard to sell,” Nellie says. “If you have a good product, all you have to do is get it out into the market.” Paul agrees. “Pop-up dinners and support from BizMIX really gave me the chance to get my product out to a lot of people.” The two have been surprised by an outpouring of support from the community and especially from other business owners who have brought the couple in for pop-up dinners and events, including Murphy O’Brien of Café Fina, Soma Franks and Fiona Wong of Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen and Mu Jing Lau of Mu Du Noodles.
Support from these members of the culinary community shows an eagerness for the continued expansion and growth of Santa Fe’s culinary scene. “Other business owners have really supported us,” Nellie says. “We couldn’t have done it without them.” Customers have also contributed to the initial success of Paper Dosa, filling the restaurant every night. Paul says, “People are welcoming and grateful and really supportive. It’s just amazing.” The addition of Paul’s south Indian cuisine to the Santa Fe dining scene is a definite sign that our culinary community is maturing.
Back at the bar, we’re on the last course: tastes of three different curries. We begin with the vegetable curry, made with coconut milk and tomato and spiced with chili powder. I wrap pieces of uttapam, a thick south Indian pancake made from rice and lentil dosa batter, around crispy cauliflower, carrots and parsnips. The chicken curry with its long list of ingredients is one level up in heat, spiced with Thai chili. But my favorite is the very spicy lamb curry. Local lamb is seasoned with red chili, green cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, bay leaves and peppercorn. The result is an irresistibly pungent, earthy curry with a deep, broody flavor and lots of heat.
“This food makes people feel alive,” Nellie tells me, and I agree. “Life can be difficult and sometimes our day-to-day life can run us down. People come here and for that hour and a half life is driven by food and the senses. That to me is fun—it’s exciting.” For Paul, sharing his cuisine is the most rewarding thing about his new business.
“When I’m cooking, when I see that people are happy with that first bite, that makes my heart happy.”
Paper Dosa is located at 551 West Cordova Road in Santa Fe. 505.930.5521. paper-dosa.com