The dosa, that venerable rice-and-dal pancake favourite of many an Indian vegetarian restaurant, isn't easy to come by in our small yet cuisine rich city. Limited kitchen space, a reliance on meat-heavy meals and a general lack of calling for the dosa has meant the dish is often relegated to questionable outlets in Chungking Mansions.
But in Tsim Sha Tsui there are two fairly hidden vegetarian restaurants that have battled it out over the decades. The dosa is their weapon, each dishing out the classic masala mix.
Woodlands, in the Wing On Plaza on Mody Road, has been proudly offering its humble and hearty cuisine since 1981, while Branto, on a side street opposite Chungking, has been serving in a commercial office building for decades. The two aren't neighbours, but the five-minute walking distance has torn many a dosa lover as to which is the finer, more authentic Indian pancake.
We enter Woodlands on a rainy weekday evening, a 1980s plaza victim in the luxury mall age. The restaurant is empty at 7.30pm, its three-decade-old decor feeling even drearier with nary a soul seated. By itself, the lack of customers would be a bad sign for most restaurants - but one has to remember that Indians eat late, and sure enough, two tables are filled within minutes of our arrival.
Our oversized masala dosa (HK$55) arrives quickly - too quickly, in fact - along with the two standard side sauces of dal and curd with spices. The pancake is undercooked, with the top layer too crispy and the bottom too soggy, while its excess batter means one has to shovel heavy masses before getting to the masala. Further disappointment kicks in when you do - the stale, savourless potato and onions taste like they came out of a tin. We leave feeling stuffed but disappointed in our search for the master dosa.
However, Branto's decidedly different vibe immediately relieves the excess weight: the restaurant is almost packed with customers. But this isn't part of the after-8pm eating habit. Among the numerous South Asians here for home-style cooking are a host of foreigners eager to sample the cuisine - Australians, British, local Chinese; word spreads quickly in this town, and an even mix of customers is always a good sign.
Branto's masala dosa is cheaper (HK$39) and smaller - but for a dish of its size, this isn't a terrible thing. First glance reveals the pancake's clean shape, with the bread perfectly fencing in the fine masala mix.
But the true sign is tearing into it, and in this, the dosa excels. It's crispy on top and chewy underneath, with the contrasting pancake made all the merrier with a scoop of Branto's masala: freshly made, moist and with a multitude of spices (bay leaves, cloves), its delectable mix soon overrides Woodlands' disappointment and leaves us thoroughly satisfied - and the feeling is shared by the other diners, given the dosas being devoured around the restaurant.
The verdict: Woodlands may have the years on its side, with longtime fans raving about its endless delights, but what it offers is quantity over quality - a no-no for a dish of this size. Branto's backing from both South Asians and foreigners is a telling sign; it offers the ideal bread-to-masala mix and arguably the best dosa in Hong Kong.
1/F, 9-11 Lock Road
Tsim Sha Tsui
Tel: 2366 8171
UG 16-17, Wing On Plaza
62 Mody Road
Tsim Sha Tsui East
Tel: 2369 3718