Spice of America, The Most Interesting Indian Restaurant in San Francisco, is Hiding in Plain Sight

by Soleil Ho | San Francisco Chronicle

Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

The first time I dined at Spice of America, a self-described “modern Indian” restaurant located on an unremarkable stretch of Market Street, the room was nearly empty. In two hours, only one other party came in to eat. The music, Indian covers of cheery American pop music like “One Dance” and “Closer,” played to a hushed audience, creating a mismatched energy not unlike a darkly lit middle school prom where no one’s dancing. A trickle of people came in alone — not to sit, but to pick up to-go orders through services like Doordash and Caviar. The restaurant was selling food, but it seemed like no one was actually coming in to eat it. To me, it spelled doom.

Sitting there at our island of a table, my friends and I couldn’t help but marvel. The food is fantastic, imaginative and affordable! The service is so attentive and nice! It’s my favorite brick-and-mortar Indian place in San Francisco right now —so why isn’t anyone coming?

Spice of America’s address doesn’t seem to help the situation at all. It’s located in a liminal area between more interesting neighborhoods, a no-man’s-land bounded by Mid-Market, Hayes Valley, the Mission and SoMa. Across the street, Zuni Cafe has been holding it down for decades, essentially serving as the gateway to the cool, upscale Hayes Valley district.

This could easily be a story about how the modern restaurant is dying thanks to the capriciousness of our economy, another testament to how San Francisco doesn’t take care of its own.

But not so for Spice of America. In the year or so that the restaurant has been open, partner Vaisham Chokshi says that his team has tried to embrace the current landscape, working in myriad ways to get on diners’ radars: They’ve responded to Yelp and Google reviews, picked up lunchtime catering jobs for tech companies in the neighborhood and gotten the restaurant on every single delivery app possible. Chokshi is comfortable with this world; before the restaurant, he was in the IT department for the Indian Consulate here for 10 years.

I was wrong. Spice of America isn’t a chick that’s failed to hatch. It’s a swan with a surface level of gliding calm that belies the frantic work its feet are doing to keep it afloat.

Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

The menu is pan-Indian with a bit of Nepali cuisine, like momos, thrown into the mix. It’s hard to pin down the overall vibe of the cuisine here: The food is a step more image-focused than your average neighborhood curry house, but at a lower price point than the Cali-Indian Rooh. You won’t find chicken tikka masala here, but the spiced tandoor salmon appetizer ($14) features an intriguing tamarind ranch sauce. Most of the appetizers are street food-inspired, and the majority of the menu is vegetarian. Samosas ($11 for three) are chubby, flaky stalwarts, their fillings greener than most thanks to a plethora of peas. Sauced with green chutney and yogurt, the hefty triangular peaks look like a snowy mountain range. Kale and bhel ($9) surprised me with its textural delight: curly kale leaves are battered in a turmeric-yellow coating and fried, then topped with yogurt, chopped tomato, cilantro chutney, red onion and a sprinkle of sev. Turns out that the memetic brassica of the West Coast fits the chaat genre perfectly.

Entrees leave a strong impression as well. A spiced omelet ($12) filled with herbs, chiles and cheese is sauced with a rich gravy that leaves green cardamom lingering on your palate. Baingan bharta ($11) is made from roasted eggplants, with fragments of their blackened skins lending an almost overwhelming campfire smokiness to the dish. A Kerala-style shrimp curry ($14) is tangy from green mango, though fatty coconut milk keeps that flavor from fully dominating.

It’s a common assumption that Indian cuisine, with its thick curries and foil-wrappable fresh flatbreads, makes the most sense for the food-delivery industry, but a container wouldn’t do justice to the presentation of the food here. A plate of Bombay chaat ($12) is the fanciest pani puri you’ll ever have, with the peppery liquid served in a ceramic sake carafe next to an aloo tikki patty and a cute circular mound of chana masala. A roasted cauliflower entree ($14) is layered with minced stem at the bottom and garlanded with shaved florets on top. The thought of such a dish toppling into a pile while being lugged around in a clamshell container across town is a depressing one.

To be representative in my review, I did something that restaurant critics rarely do: In addition to visiting the restaurant multiple times, I also ordered from the restaurant via a delivery app. Though it’s on every delivery service, Spice of America offers exclusive dishes through GrubHub, so I ordered every single one of those special dishes.

Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

An array of grilled sandwiches ($7.99-$10.99) come with fillings like potato masala, chicken tikka masala and my favorite of the bunch, cheese and green chiles. They all arrived in about 45 minutes in containers with cilantro chutney and ketchup in side compartments; the ketchup was a head-scratcher, but I did really enjoy dipping the sandwiches in the thick and herbal cilantro chutney. The still-warm sandwiches were a little soggy from their time in sealed plastic containers, but the idea they represented was novel enough, like sandwiches Indian American parents might throw together out of leftovers for kids’ school lunches.

Chokshi thinks of delivery and catering as advertising: Each container the kitchen sends out into the neighborhood is a business card, a chance to persuade someone to make the time to actually come in and eat in person. That’s not a new idea by any means, but his optimism about the medium is significant in a time of particular anxiety about the way the gig economy has shifted the restaurant business in San Francisco, with multiple restaurateurs recently citing delivery apps — and their associated fees — as a reason for closing a restaurant.

But for Chokshi, the delivery services are an investment he’s willing to take a risk on, with the hope that they will bring potential diners to a side of Market Street where they probably would never just wander.

There are material benefits to eating in, though. Spice of America features one of the greatest deals in the city, with a weekend four- or six-course prix fixe menu priced at $49 and $69 per person, respectively.

Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

The courses are pulled from the regular menu, and the set includes two chaat-adjacent amuse-bouches, a soup course, your pick of a starter and entree, a variety basket of naan and a dessert of pistachio rasmalai, the sweet, cheesy dumplings soft and pliant like pale beached jellyfish. During the rest of the week, the heaping shahi thali platters ($23) are a great way to experience the menu and a ridiculous amount of food. The tray looks like a fancy hubcap, with compartments filled with naan, basmati rice, a piece of aloo tikki, salad, stewed lentils, baingan bharta, cabbage and a protein of your choice. It’s an excellent way for the kitchen to show off its versatility.

So maybe the doomsaying is a bit premature. This is a restaurant that’s adaptable, smart and able to flex a variety of culinary muscles. And I hope the people come.