When Tiffin's opened on Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder three years ago, the fast-casual restaurant was completely vegetarian. Over time, the menu has grown from a focus on the street food of southern India, adding more familiar -- at least to Front Range palates -- curries, kabobs and biryanis. Still, much of the menu is occupied by snacks and stewed vegetables and legumes not common at Denver's many other Indian restaurants.
See also: Khazana Focuses on Tamil Cuisine
Three of us made the trek up to Boulder, slaloming through the curves and lane shifts of Highway 36 construction traffic and into Boulder, seemingly drawn by the rich melange of spices emanating from the kitchen at Tiffin's -- a bare-bones but tidy operation that relies almost entirely on wafting aromas for its advertising. In southern India, the word "tiffin" refers to a mid-morning or mid-day snack, the kind of easily portable street-food typified by the first section of Tiffin's menu: samosas, dosas, idlis and vadas. I had eaten vadas smothered in spicy sambar (a type of lentil stew) a couple of weeks ago at Khazana in Lone Tree, but I was a little disappointed by the texture, so I wanted to try the plain version here. Tiffin's vadas are dense and earthy, with spices blended into the lentil-flour batter. Despite the doughnut shape, the crunchy exterior and moist, grainy interior are more reminiscent of cornmeal hush puppies. Dunked in cilantro-chile or tamarind chutney, a single vada is a spicy and filling snack. Not that we stopped there; dumpling-like idlis were up next. We also ordered these plain (served with the same duo of chutneys) and admired the pristine white disks made from lentil and rice flour. These were less flavorful than the vadas, with only a slight sourdough note, but served as an excellent vehicle for the chutneys. Unlike the vadas, which lose their deep-fried crunch when bathed in sauce, the steamed idlis seem made specifically to be smothered in sambar.
Our third tiffin -- a light and crisp dosa -- came filled with chunks of potato and shredded cheese -- yellow American cheese, that is. When it comes to street food, it seems like our national cheese has made its way into every niche of the globe. Keep reading for more on Tiffin's
All of this was plenty of food for three, but we knew we would be toting home leftovers, so we also ordered a trio of entrees: lamb korma, shrimp vindaloo and bengan bartha -- a chunky eggplant and tomato curry studded with peas. Of the three, the vindaloo stood out as an exemplary version of a dish common to most Indian restaurants, with a brick-red sauce bright and thick with finely pureed herbs and spices. Unlike so many other versions of vindaloo that offer heat without complexity, Tiffin's blend -- available in mild, medium or hot -- focuses on freshness over fire.
Indian cuisine is often even better the second day, when the seasonings have had a chance to meld, the sauces to thicken and the meats to absorb the surrounding flavors. Whether you wait until breakfast to reheat the previous night's feast or simply stand barefooted at 1 a.m. in front of the refrigerator, bathed in the pale light of the tiny bulb, the powerful mixtures just seem to beckon -- hot or cold. Be warned, though: idlis and vadas are best eaten fresh, whether plain or bathed in sambar. They either become dry and crumbly once cooled or they turn to mush beneath a layer of lentil stew.
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Go to Tiffin's with friends to share these unique delights along with a curry or two, but when the time comes to take the last bites before pushing away from the table, reach for the savory street-food pastries and save the kormas and masalas for later.