Happy homestyle cooking from the south of India 

Ruchi, a five-month-old Indian restaurant on a nondescript stretch of Third Street near the Harrison freeway overpass, specializes in colorful, vibrant, home-cooked dishes from Andhra Pradesh  and Tamil Nadu, the southwestern-most states of India.

Delicious aromas waft out of the immaculate open kitchen when you walk into the airy, light-filled dining room. 

At lunch, head right to the cash register to order a vegetarian thali ($8.95) from Chinny Kakuturu, the witty, diminutive, chatty young owner. It will be delivered to your table.

Each day, she and her cooks make a different vegetable curry that is the centerpiece of a first-rate thali,  a shiny metal tray arranged with little metal bowls.

One Tuesday, a fragrant, hot-but-balanced meld of eggplant and sweet peppers, shot with toasted black mustard seed, came with house-made yogurt;  sambar, a thick soup of pureed dahl seasoned with pungent, curry leaves;  rasam, a thin sweet and sour broth with tamarind; a dry curry of potato coated with toasted spices, curry leaf and cilantro; a silky, nutty, moong bean stew, aromatic with ginger and onion; pucker inducing house-made lemon pickle coated with red spice paste; a pile of basmati rice; triangles of tandoor baked white flatbread brushed with butter (a bit of a northern anomaly); and for sweet, a little bowl of kir — sweetened, boiled-down milk swirled with vermicelli, cardamom and cashews.

I spooned up and then mopped up every morsel.

At dinner, look at the curry section of the menu to create an even more fabulous thali on your own plate. Velvety, boneless hunks of poultry in both spinach chicken ($10) and chicken chettinadu ($9) are loaded with spice and personality.

The chettinadu gets a gravy inflected with black pepper and sweet spices. The spinach becomes a rich, satiny sauce.

Vegetable poriyal ($8), a triumph of south Indian cooking, is a dry curry of soft vegetables coated with crisp moong dahl, toasted whole spices and fresh curry leaves.

Greens pullakoora ($8), tart, soft spinach simmered with soft dahl, freshly popped seeds, chiles and curry leaves, is pure and delightful women’s cooking, as my Indian friend Niloufer calls it.

Nellore, a city on the east coast of Andhra, inspires a fish curry ($12), albeit made with freshwater fish here, in a chile-charged tomato and tamarind gravy, crunchy with fried lentils. 

Coconut rice ($7), full of toasted seeds and whole spices, cashews, grated coconut and fried lentils and served with raita, goes with all of this but is so good, you might want to just have it by itself.

Cold bottles of Indian Kingfisher beer ($4) go well with dinner, but bring your own wine and pay the $7 corkage per bottle.

Kakuturu waits on tables at night, charming people into ordering her beloved home-style Andhra dishes. I asked her why she would have anything but her  favorites on the menu.

“People come into an Indian restaurant expecting tandoori and chicken tikka masala,” she said. “We can’t disappoint the customer. We have to survive.”

A little bit later, she came to the table with her beautiful, calm, 5-month old baby in her arms. Such a sweet boy!  So curious. We could see what she has at stake.  

Ruchi

Location: 474 Third St. (between Bryant and Harrison streets), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 392-8353; www.ruchisf.com
Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Price range: $5 to $13
Recommended dishes: Spinach chicken, coconut rice, mixed vegetable poriyal, greens pullakoora, vegetable baijji, vegetarian thali, chicken chettinadu
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, Discover
Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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