Spicy Bite

Fragrant Indian standards at affordable prices in an easy-to-take location near Bernal Heights
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

We all have our little weaknesses, and one of mine is any form of the word "spice." "Spicy" is a particularly potent variation, since in common usage it doesn't mean well-spiced in a general sense, with nutmeg and clove — like carrot cake or mulled cider — but flavorfully hot. If some dish is described as spicy, whether shrimp or French fries, I am going to have a hard time staying away from it. And if a restaurant has the word "spicy" in its name, I am going to have a hard time staying away from it, too. I am all ears. Or eyes. Or nostrils.

Despite this strong sensory awareness, I don't know of many restaurants in the city that answer to this alluring description. There is Spices! on Eighth Avenue near Clement, a kind of hipster noodle house serving a pan-Asian menu with plenty of kick. Google also reports the reality of Thai Spice on Polk; this is news to me. But let's not forget Spicy Bite, an Indian restaurant at the southern edge of the impressive restaurant row that has developed in recent years near the confluence of Mission and Valencia streets.

An Indian restaurant in these environs is welcome for its very Indianness. The neighbors include a wealth of Mexican and other Latin American restaurants, a smattering of Thai and Chinese places, the impressive Blue Plate (with high-grade new American cooking), and the endearingly quirky Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, a kind of alt answer to Pasta Pomodoro. So Indian, yes, good; spicy Indian, better!

"Spicy bite" could mean any kind of spicy bite, but your nose knows what awaits even before you step inside. The smell of curry drifts through the front door and hovers at the corner as a fragrant cloud and an advertisement. Few food establishments can match the olfactory signature of Indian restaurants — only bakeries and breweries, in my experience. Spicy Bite offers both beer and wine, but because south Asian cuisine didn't evolve in the company of wine, I tend to find matching the two awkward and to prefer beer instead. (Beer is underrated as an accompaniment to food; it might not be as good as the best food-wine matches, but in my experience it pairs up with a wider variety of foods than does wine, while clashing with none. Certainly it goes well with spicy foods of every description. Almost no wine can make that claim.)

Given the centrality of India to vegetarianism, it's not surprising to find that Spicy Bite is vegetarian-friendly in addition to being spice-hound friendly. You can do very nicely here without touching flesh, from lovely pappadum ($2) — the crinkly lentil wafers, with their faint sheen of frying oil, like freshly painted object rapidly drying — to a meatless biryani and a long list of what the menu calls "vegetarian dishes." These are none the worse for being familiar and include a richer-than-usual saag paneer ($9.50) with an abundance of cubed white cheese, and a fine chana masala ($8.50), with chickpeas in a velvety sauce softened by tomato. One also suspects butter as a player in many of these complex sauces — not an issue for most people, but possibly worth asking about for those who shun dairy.

Chili heat varies per your request, and there are three settings, as on an inexpensive blender. I like hot and spicy food, but one person's hot is another's incendiary and inedible, and asking the server for guidance usually produces a philosophical shrug. We ended up on the "medium" setting and found the dishes so seasoned to be plenty hot enough.

As for flesh: the tandoori chicken ($8.50) surprisingly disappointed. The half-bird was tasty and tender enough; it was an attractive rosy color and arrived on the customary hot iron skillet, complete with lemon quarters, tomato chunks, and sizzling shards of onion.

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