Am Spices of India vs. Annapurna’s World Vegetarian Café
By Steve “Mo” Fye
As my editor and I were discussing what
culinary genre I should review next, she suggested vegan. I’m a dedicated
carnivore/omnivore, so she thought it would be funny.
I took it as a challenge.
There are only a handful of places in town that serve vegan food exclusively. Many more cater to vegans, but still serve less-strict vegetarian fare that might include fish, dairy or eggs. It’s rare to find a restaurant that does not offer a few vegetarian options along with the more traditional plates of ‘meat, sauce, veg and a starch.’
Even if you are an omnivore like me, medical science suggests that a diet too high in meat is unhealthy. I refrain from meat a few days a week, just to keep a balance.
So, where do the vegans eat?
Annapurna has been a mainstay of vegan and Ayurvedic food in Albuquerque for years. Ayurveda, the Indian tradition of medicine, balance and life – not just a diet – seems to have included small amounts of meat in its early iterations, but in the U.S. it is usually vegetarian, if not vegan. A deeper discussion of Ayurveda is best left to others.
To stay in the same cultural tradition, I also chose Am Spices of India, a vegetarian restaurant with a large selection of vegan dishes.
Am Spices of India is a tiny storefront on the north side of Central Ave. between 3rd and 4th Streets. There are a few tables on the fenced sidewalk dining area, and a few more inside. It is cramped, but clean and bright.
The buffet consists of seven hot vegetarian and vegan dishes as well as fresh fruit, salad and the traditional raita and tamarind sauces.
We tried all of the dishes over seasoned rice and were served chapati (Indian flatbread) and gulab jamun (a dessert made from milk solids fried in ghee and scented with rosewater) as accompaniments to the buffet fare.
The curried vegetables were richly flavored; the buffet was rounded out with dal (lentils), chickpeas and black-eyed peas. Each had an individual flavor profile and made for a great plate with a variety of textures.
The buffet was a bit pricy at $12.95, but extremely filling and loaded with meat-free proteins and amino acids – just what a vegan needs. The masala milk, a blend of cashew milk and spices served hot, was rich and creamy, despite being vegan.
This restaurant has a full menu of vegetarian and vegan entrées available for dining in or pickup. It costs a bit more than many would like to spend on a meat-free meal, but I can see myself picking up some takeout on a weeknight when I have a craving for a mélange of Indian flavors and want to skip the meat.
Annapurna’s Silver and Yale location is still a landmark in University Heights (what we’re supposed to call the Student Ghetto now). Like EJ’s before it, it is a hangout for an entire cross section of the UNM-area community.
Inside, the high ceilings with the original tin tiles (now painted brightly) give the chai house an open, airy feel – far more welcoming than the cramped storefront at Am Spices. On a slow and rainy Sunday evening, we could hear the kitchen crew singing boisterously to the radio.
Annapurna’s menu is full of vegetarian, vegan and Ayurvedic dishes, along with some explanation of how the Ayurvedic diet can bring balance to one’s health. Not ready to commit to a complete change of diet and living, we chose two sampler plate entrées to share.
The South India Sampler was a giant plate including a masala dosa (rice and lentil flatbread stuffed with seasoned potatoes and veggies), two idlis (black lentil and rice cakes with the texture of cornbread) in sambar (tamarind-based dish with lentils) and a vadai (in this case, a donut-shaped fritter made from chickpeas, much like a falafel).
The vadai came with coconut chutney, probably my favorite thing on the platter. The sambar was overpowered by a puckery citrus flavor, and I was unable to finish it. Everything else was good, if unevenly seasoned.
The North India Sampler was also pretty big. It came with saag paneer (great texture, but seriously bland compared to AM Spices’) matar paneer (peas in tomato sauce with paneer) and one of the three daily veggie sides.
We got the spicy potato and zucchini, and were glad we did. The matar had a deep, rich flavor – far more complex than we expected from a vegetarian sauce. Again, the paneer was beautifully textured, but pretty flavorless.
My buddy’s chai came to the table steaming and aromatic. He compared it favorably to chai he had tasted in India.
Once again in a “Food Fight” we find two restaurants serving a similar cuisine, but going at it from two completely different points of view:
For someone wanting to ease into Indian vegetarian food, Am Spices is probably the most user-friendly option. The buffet allows the customer to sample and go back for favorites.
Annapurna’s is a far more open and comfortable place, with a full variety of coffee drinks and their famous vegan and gluten-free desserts.
The food at Am Spices was more consistent in quality and flavor.
So it comes down, again, to what kind of experience the customer wants. For a quick lunch or dinner downtown with great variety and flavor, Am Spices is the place to go.
Annapurna’s is the better choice for a group of folks who love Indian, vegan or vegetarian food, or want to spend a leisurely meal in a UNM-area landmark.
Am Spices of India: 317 Central Ave. NW, 87102. 492-3570, amspicesofindia.com
Annapurna’s World Vegetarian Café: 2201 Silver Ave. SE, 87106. 262-2424, chaishoppe.com
Steve “Mo” Fye is an Instructional Tech in the Culinary Arts program at Central New Mexico Community College and makes a mean curried chickpea and rice dish for those days he skips meat.