Dining at Southern Spice will test your threshold for chaos.
I’ve dined at this newish Indian restaurant four times, and with each visit the restaurant has grown busier and more crowded. It was chaotic from day one in January when it was still undiscovered. Go now on any night of the week between 6 and 8 p.m., and you’ll wish you had swallowed a Valium before leaving the house.
If your threshold for chaos is high, you will undoubtedly enjoy some of the best Indian food in Orange County.
You’ll find yourself getting up from the table constantly to search for a napkin, find a spoon, track down a glass of beer or some other mundane task that will test your patience. Avoid the bathroom if you can. Southern Spice is not a full-service restaurant. If you need or want anything, be prepared to work for it.
Get in line and order at the counter, then find a place to sit. You might need to clean your own table first, though, if you can find a napkin. It’s that sort of place.
But if you can see past the disarray, you might start to see its charm. When the busboy finally makes an appearance, he’ll be smiling from ear to ear, blissfully giddy and eager to please.
On my latest visit, I’m standing at the front of the line in the middle of this rush. I’m holding a menu in my hand, trying not to think of the crowd waiting behind me while I solicit advice from the cashier. The menu is overwhelming: more than 100 items — not counting the choices between chicken, lamb or veg on dozens of those dishes. Most of what’s offered doesn’t come with much description other than something along the lines of “classic Hyderabad-style curry” or “classic Andhra-style curry,” which doesn’t really clarify anything for most of us.
I’ve been to India five times, and I’d like to think of myself as a fairly quick learner. But I simply do not know the meaning of terms such as ragda pattice, sev puri, bhel masala or so many other things on the menu that forgo any description whatsoever. So here I am now at the front of the line, my fifth adventure into Southern Spice, trying to wrestle a few suggestions from a cashier who doesn’t know if the restaurant serves wine, even as there are several bottles of wine displayed on a shelf directly behind her. I turn my head to offer a pathetic smile to the hungry crowd that’s swelling behind me, and I realize I’m the only one in the crowd who doesn’t look Indian.
I attempt to explain to the cashier that I’ve already sampled some of the restaurant’s more familiar dishes — tandoori chicken, tikka masala, butter chicken — and ask for her thoughts on a lamb curry. She picks up a menu and studies it, taking her time, flipping it over and checking both sides. I fear the crowd behind me might break into a riot any second.
“Do you like spicy?” she asks, running her finger down the list.
“Sure,” I say, and then she mutters a bunch of words that I don’t understand.
“I’ll take that one,” I say, not daring to ask her to repeat it. Then I point to the large menu board on the wall above the kitchen and ask about a corn dish listed under a category of “street food.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t have that tonight,” she says.
I point to another selection on the board, more words I’ve never heard spoken. “We don’t have that one, either,” she says.
“Do you have anything from that menu?” I ask.
“No, that’s an old menu. The new menu is the one in your hands,” she says.
I can feel the warmth of the crowd begin to encroach on my personal space. My time is up.
The bottom line is this: The food here is delicious. The classics are better here than what you’ve been eating elsewhere. And all those other dishes that you’ve never heard of are even better than the ones you already know. The gutti vankaya is incredible. Ah, but what’s that, you ask? It’s baby eggplants stuffed with a spicy peanut-coconut paste, cooked in an onion-tomato masala, a specialty of Andhra.
The Chettinad chicken pepper fry is sublime. Don’t know what that is, either? The most important thing to know is that the dominant flavor is black pepper.
Want any of this for lunch? Too bad. Lunch is extremely limited. I don’t recommend lunch, only dinner. The full menu comes available around 5 p.m., or whenever the kitchen finally gets everything ready for the night.
The ultimate question is, “What’s your threshold for chaos?
3850 Barranca Parkway, Irvine, 949-679-6914
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.