I have been catching up on over 10 days of DesiPundit, and came across Sumne's post about Sri Krishna Kafe's Tamilian meal deal. Sadly, Koramangala is several light years from where we live, so I went for lunch to something closer home: the legendary Iyer Mess, a great institution -- Janata Cafe is another -- in this wonderful centre of civilization called Malleswaram.
The Iyer Mess is run by a family in a decades-old small house, a corner of which houses the dining area with about 10 tables. The house itself has nothing to distinguish it from its neighbours; it is easy to miss if you walk a little fast (impossible to do on the 7th Cross!). Till about 5 years ago, it didn't even have a sign proclaiming the 'messy' status of the house (it sports a modest one now). Yet, between 7:00 and 8:30 in the evening, the place would be teeming with a lot of young people, and almost all of them single men. Occasionally, one could see an odd woman and an even odder child there. And, you could hear pretty much every dialect of Tamil and Malayalam in the mess and in the verandah.
The meal itself is simple: Rice, two side dishes, sambhar, rasam, curds, pickles and papad, all served on a fresh, crisp plantain leaf. This basic meal, however, never had the monotonous, synthetic taste that could come, for example, from ground coconut, sugar/jaggery or too much oil. Despite being made of the least expensive seasonal vegetables, the meal is good (almost always), great (occasionally), or soulful and sublime (surprisingly often). I also remember the times when I landed up there slightly late and they had run out of one or two dishes; I was made to wait while the lady of the house made a 'quickie' sambhar or rasam in the kitchen on the other side of the verandah.
It is this 'homely' nature of the place that attracts -- and holds -- its steady and loyal customers. The owners never wanted to exploit their brand image to expand into other areas; they continue to stay small, serving less than 100 meals for lunch and perhaps 150 for dinner. After all these years, the house has not seen any renovation, nor has there been any change in the sartorial preferences of the owners.
I have a vivid memory of one particular dinner, in which the sambhar was too salty. I was in the first batch for dinner; one by one, people started complaining to the old gentleman (Maama!) who was serving the meal. To the first complaint, he gave a patient reply: "Yeah, let me ask Maami if she can do anything about it." To the second, he had a curt reply: "Yes, it's salty". I still pity the poor bloke who made came in third with the same complaint; even before he could finish his sentence, the old man just hit the roof, yelling at him "Aren't you guys regulars here? Is it so difficult to take 'this' sambhar just for this one day?"; we were all grateful he stopped short of calling us ingrates. 'Homely', indeed!
I am glad I went there for lunch today (after a long time!). I was surprised to find the meal priced at 18 rupees, barely one or two rupees more than what I remember paying five years ago. If I were to write a slogan for this wonderful place that fed me for several years, this is how it would go:
Iyer Mess: Value for money, and 'homely' in more ways than one!