In India, when someone tells you, “I’ll see you at 4 p.m.,” what he really means is, “I’ll see you anytime between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.” At Pavani Express Vegetarian Café, San Antonio’s newest all-veggie, vegan-friendly, and supposedly fast food restaurant, the “Express” in the name is more of a commercial gimmick than a guarantee that you’re going to get your food, uh, fast.
Pavani, located next door to India Store on Evers, opened in December and I’ve eaten there four or five times since. The place is small and undecorated, with a flat-screen blasting Bollywood all day and night and a huge trash can in between the entrance door and one of the tables. Nothing fancy here — the eatery mostly targets Indians who know what to expect. In my case, wait time oscillated between 15 minutes on a slow day to 45 minutes on a busy one, and I did not expect that. I ended up calling about 30 minutes ahead to place my order in advance once, and that worked for the most part.
Having said all this, the food is worth waiting for. The place specializes in North and South Indian dishes, and most of the items in the menu are under $10. The problem is that in order to have a real Indian dinner you need to combine plates, and I was never able to spend less than $47 for two people. I’m talking about a simple dish with delicious saffron lemon rice, a big puri (fried, tortilla-like puffed-up bread), navratam korma (mixed vegetables), paneer (homemade cheese), pakoras (fritters), and a drink (please: the mango lassi was tasty, but I don’t like to see yogurt chunks while I’m drinking it; use a blender, not a whisk).
Prices and wait-time aside, the service is friendly and the food is usually dynamite. The different vegetable dishes taste exactly as you would find them in India, the puris and chapatis (flat bread) are big, moist, and hot, and the chutneys taste the way they are supposed to: so hot you can barely eat them, and so delicious you can’t stop. And you can’t go wrong with the dahl soups — you don’t know what soup is until you taste this.
But Pavani needs to get its act together when it comes to sweets: depending on which day you show up, you’ll have either carrot halava (I’ve had better, and I prefer the one made with cream of wheat), burfi (milk-based sweets), or gulab jamuns (deep-fried balls of milk solids). Gulab Jamuns can come at you from heaven (juicy and sweet) or from hell (hard and dry). If you’re going to sell them, make sure they are gulab jamuns and not a sloppy concoction that resembles it. They’re not easy to make, but please try.
Pavani is just beginning, and it is my sincere wish that it will eventually combine the magic of India’s cuisine with the efficiency of a real American fast food restaurant. It would be inhumane to make diners keep waiting so long for food this good.
5755 Evers Rd.