No meat? No problem. It took a leap of faith to follow the lead of a Bombay-born biochemical engineer, who I met on a Thanksgiving flight from Atlanta to L.A., but the payoff was substantial, Ashirwad (The Blessings), a remarkable Indian restaurant in the Inland Empire “hub” of Upland that’s strictly vegetarian. Not that it limited our enjoyment.
The name of the restaurant translates from Sanskrit as “The Blessings,” and refers to a Bengali pre-wedding ceremony involving the bride and the groom’s elders. Kalpesh Joshi and his uncle Pravin oversee the six-month-old, family run establishment, which occupies an unassuming strip mall space along bygone Route 66. The family’s from Simar, a coastal town 800 miles north of what’s now Mumbai, in the Gujarati district of Junagadh.
My friends and I settled into a table in what looks like a former convenience store, and Pravin Joshi greeted us with, “Two questions: how hungry are you and how spicy can you handle?”
It was refreshing to look at an Indian menu and not see options like tikka or vindaloo. Instead, we enjoyed regional specialties from Mumbai and Gujarat like Shaak, Thepla & Dahi ($4.99). Well-spiced potatoes and vegetables joined thick, tangy yogurt and blistered fenugreek leaf “tortillas”, which had good bite and really popped when spooned with pungent spiced mango condiment.
Bhel Puri ($3.99) combined a blizzard of flavors and textures, including puffed rice, crisp papadi discs, strands of chickpea noodles called sev, raw onions, potatoes, cilantro, and sweet & sour chutney crafted from tamarind, jaggery and spices.
Rava Masala Dosa ($5.99) featured laced, vegetable-flecked netting that looked like layered Swiss cheese and contained a turmeric-stained cache of onions and potatoes. Complementary sauces consisted of tart tamarind tomato and sweet-tangy yogurt coconut.
The only dish that didn’t dazzle us was Batata Vada ($2.99), spiced mashed potatoes formed into balls, encased in dough, fried and served with spicy mint chutney.
Khasta Kachori ($4.99) consisted of a crispy puri shell stuffed with potatoes and roasted spices. The Joshis blanketed the base with tangy yogurt, raw onion, cilantro, sev, and more addicting sweet and sour chutney, which we emptied in the paper boat.
Khichdi Khadi ($6.99) was an exciting dish off-menu “Gujarati staple” that combined turmeric stained, herb-flecked yogurt soup, with a hearty dish of rice, lentils and vegetables like eggplant cooked together with chilies and spices. Pappadam completed the picture.
Of course we had to experience dessert. I enjoyed Sheera ($2.99) a warm semolina pudding folded with milk, sugar, saffron, shaved almonds, cardamom and dried apricots.
Ashirwad has a small display case of Gujarati Sweets ($7.99/lb), including gol papdi (jaggery, wheat and ghee) and kesar bafdi (milk, sugar, almond, pistachio, saffron).
My choices totaled $1.60 and consisted of Adad-Yo (“winter energy food” – wheat, jaggery, ghee, and Ayurvedic medicines); and mohan thal (chickpea flour, ghee, sugar).
Upland doesn’t have much of a culinary identity, but Ashirwad certainly put the city on my map, and the Joshi family warrants a special trip to the 909 by themselves.