If Rasoi, a gently fading South Asian restaurant on the tumultuous Valencia corridor, had collapsed altogether in the face of last year’s Dosa challenge, shock would probably not have been the general reaction. Dosa (which opened last fall with a South Indian menu) was and remains the new wave, and its swirling, youthful crowds would not seem out of place at the entrance to a popular nightclub. Rasoi, on the other hand, was a homey ’90s relic: the dining room was a large, largely featureless box filled with dusty sunlight slanting through enormous mullioned windows looking west, with ceiling fans churning lazily overhead to keep the dust motes in motion. Being there was a little like sitting in a Wild West saloon that happened to smell of curry, and the restaurant’s virtues were a certain leisureliness and friendliness, along with modest prices for decent food in substantial portions.
Longevity, of course, is not really a virtue in restaurantland. (Nor, for that matter, in America generally, land of the new and improved.) Some places do endure and are duly honored for this achievement, but most fold with little or no fanfare, even after runs of a decade or more. Saigon Saigon, one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants from the early 1990s and a Rasoi neighbor, recently went under with barely a gurgle. I would have forecast a similar outcome for Rasoi, except that the location somehow attracted the attention of Mohammed Aslam, a chef who’s cooked at the highly regarded Indian Oven in the Lower Haight. He thought he could breathe new life into Rasoi’s rasoi (“kitchen” in Hindi), and the place is now called Aslam’s Rasoi. And he has indeed breathed new — in fact, spectacular — life into the old horse. If you are looking for the best South Asian food on Valencia between 20th and 22nd streets, there is now a genuine horserace between Dosa and Aslam’s Rasoi, resplendent now not only with a north-tilting menu of considerable force and fire but with freshly sponge-painted walls, dramatic new cabernet-colored draperies, and refinished wood-plank floors.
Despite the competition, the two restaurants are not difficult to distinguish. The most obvious difference has to do with meatiness, and if you are interested in flesh, Aslam’s Rasoi is the place. The offerings here include a wide range of lamb, chicken, and seafood dishes, many of them prepared in the tandoor. In my experience, the tandoor isn’t quite the forum for prawns, though in Aslam’s version ($17) the shrimp do retain their soft, springy quality, growing neither rubbery nor mushy in the high heat. Also, they are assertively spiced: a leitmotif of the food generally.
A better tandoor choice might be boti kebab ($15), marinated lamb cubes roasted up to a rosy medium-rare and nearly as tender as beef sirloin. (Needless to say, the menu is devoid of beef.) And the lamb’s saucier relation, chicken tikka masala ($13) — chunks of boneless chicken breast roasted in the tandoor and then sautéed in a mildly spiced cream sauce with quartered tomatoes — is about as good as it gets and will have you scrambling for naan to mop up the last of the sauce. The bread selection, incidentally, is broad; there are a dozen options, including a savory onion kulcha ($3), a disk of naan sprinkled with onion and cilantro. But the plain naan ($2) serves quite nicely as an adjunct to one’s fingers.
If there is a weakness to the menu, it has to do with the appetizers, most of which are deep-fried. On the other hand, deep-fried food is satisfying, and it tends to appear quickly — important considerations for the hungry. Pakoras (basically vegetable fritters) are common in Indian/Pakistani restaurants; here the assortment ($6) includes florets of broccoli and cauliflower, along with rounds of batter-dipped eggplant that look like little pizza crusts. A more compelling variation, Bombay pakoras ($7), uses calamari instead of vegetables and a chickpea batter for a bit of extra crunch. And speaking of crunch: the flash-fried wafers of lentil flour called papadum ($2), none better!
Vegetables, fortunately, while accepting the batter-and-boiling-oil fate with grace, also respond enthusiastically to other treatments, and in these, subcontinental cuisine happens to be rich. While there is a certain greatest-hits quality to Aslam’s meatless choices, there is also a smattering of the less familiar, and all the dishes are made to the highest standard, with quality ingredients, careful preparation, and an enthusiasm for spicing that is perhaps the main reason so many people love this kind of food.
Among the less spicy of the vegetable preparations is dal saag ($9), an oblong platter of spinach cooked with lentils that tastes mainly, and appealingly, of spinach. The saag paneerist in our party found it acceptable but still yearned for saag paneer ($10) — spinach cooked with cubes of fresh white cheese and often (as here) charged with some real chili heat. Also quite lively was the chana masala ($8), spicy chickpeas stewed with tomato and onion. And while paneer tikka korma ($11) isn’t exactly a vegetable (it consists of chunks of cheese bathed in a mild yogurt-fenugreek sauce), Aslam’s will be acceptable to vegetarians, at least to those of the lacto sect.
As a general proposition, desserts at South Asian restaurants can be safely ignored. Aslam’s, though, has a pair of pretty good ones: a house-made cardamom ice cream called kulfi ($6), presented as a sliced roll, like a frozen banana; and a cardamom-and-saffron rice pudding (kheer, $4), creamy-rich and, by a nose, just sweet enough to qualify as a sweet. SFBG
Dinner: nightly, 5–11 p.m.
1037 Valencia, SF
Beer and wine