The Dosa Man of New York

Seven years on, another visit to the city’s most famous streetside dosa stall reveals a Thirukumar Kandasamy who has retained everything that made him great, except the modesty
STREET FEAST
THE CITY EATS OUT An impressive queue for a quick bite from Halal Guys on a streetside pavement just outside the New York Hilton: the dosa cart is catching up

NEW YORK CITY

Not unlike Bob Dylan, whose renown had humble origins in a Greenwich Village gig in New York, the unassuming food cart of Thirukumar Kandasamy, ‘the Dosa Man’, has a fan following far beyond its immediate neighbourhood—in New York suburbs and adjoining states, for a start. The Dosa Man, who has been operating this cart since 2001, tells of one customer who got off a flight from London, checked into his hotel, and, holding a Financial Times article about the Dosa cart, walked straight over to get his fix.

With no less immodesty, Kandasamy also tom-toms the fact that he is listed in guidebooks of 42 countries. “I want dosa to be eaten sort of internationally,” the Dosa Man smiles. Then, surprising me with his vehemence, adds, “I challenge any dosa place…” In a city that takes food very seriously, these are aggressive words. I should not be surprised. In 2007, Kandasamy won the coveted Vendy Award, New York’s annual competition for the Best Street Food Vendor. The Vendys have been described by one of the city’s celebrity chefs as the Oscars of food for the real New York.

The city has thousands of street-food vendors who sell anything from designer ice-cream and veal schnitzels to Colombian arepas. Food trucks/carts might not have been terribly popular when times were good in New York City, but the US economy is stuck in a terrible downturn and New York’s unemployment is at levels not seen for more than 15 years. Street food has gained such popularity that television has joined in with a new show, The Great Food Truck Race.

In New York, where rare is the denizen who cooks, street food vending is fast becoming a career choice. With the outlays a fraction of what’s required to run a restaurant, people have been known to give up stable jobs to start a food truck. Among the most famous is Bangladeshi immigrant Meru Sikder—Vendy finalist in 2008 and 2009—who chose his midtown Biriyani Cart over his previous job as banquet chef at the Hilton.

Having prevailed at the 2007 Vendy, the Dosa Man can afford to chat affably and joke with customers in the long line behind his cart. His signature dish, the one he won his award for, is the Pondicherry Dosa, whose stuffing of spiced potatoes and salad greens may be an odd combination for the Indian palate, but remains the cart’s best seller. “We have a lot of weird stuff, like uttapam with mixed veggies...we have vegan drumsticks,” he enthuses.

I used to go to the Dosa cart before things got weird. Back in 2002, Kandasamy still had a huge Subcontinental moustache, and he kept some of his lovely fluffy vadas aside for me. That was early on in the story of the Dosa cart, a time Kandasamy remembers as ‘difficult’ because of all the explaining he had to do in turning the curious into customers: “A dosa is a sort of crepe.”

Flash forward to October 2010, as I hurry past New York University students towards Washington Square Park, which is undergoing major landscaping work and looks devastated. To my dismay, the Dosa Truck is not visible. Two carts inside the park, manned by South Asians, offer ice-cream, pretzels and hot dogs. And then, just as I am about to give up, I see a cute blonde open up her styrofoam package—and there I spy the unmistakable golden crust of the dosa I was looking for. Before she can manage a bite, I apologise and explain that I am looking for the truck. The reason for my interruption elicits a smile. “Right down the street,” she says, pointing. “You’ll see a huge line and a camera crew!”

The line is only five or six people long, nothing compared to what you see at some of New York’s other trucks. Uptown, just outside the Hilton, the Halal Guys regularly have a line of about 15 to 20 people on weekday lunches, and their weekends are just as crowded if not more. But Kandasamy is indeed being filmed, the boom and the reporter practically inside his cramped truck. Later, when I ask him who the TV guys were, the Dosa Man breezily says he had been too busy to ask.

Seven years on, the Dosa Truck is little changed. Unlike the elaborately decorated and brightly painted carts that one bumps across in the city, it still looks like a hot dog truck. Customers waiting in line can go through clippings of articles about him; some are in Japanese. One small sign indicates he is a Vendy Award Winner. There is a photograph of Kandasamy raising his fists in solidarity with a parade of vegetarian demonstrators passing by his cart.

Fame may have changed the Dosa Man more than it has changed his cart. Gone is the Veerappan moustache. The moustache he now sports is sleeker, more cosmopolitan. His accent, too, has changed, revealing less of the Sri Lankan immigrant who leapt across the water ‘for a better future’, and more of a hipster ready to cast his breath with the sort of twang that New Yorkers do. And he seems to have got a security crew—one day, a tall White man with numerous piercings, handling the Dosa Man’s huge wad of cash; another day, a tall Jamaican sporting salt-and-pepper dreadlocks, keeping tabs on who has paid and who not.

When I reach the counter, I am amazed to find that Kandasamy remembers me. Soon, I realise he remembers all his customers, practically prompting their food orders and often recommending drinks they end up loving. Occasionally, his mobile phone rings. “No problem. Come on down or send somebody,” he says, and moves onto the next person in the line. Someone asks for “the usual”.

One middle-aged working mom, one of his long-time clients, explains the loyalty he elicits: “It’s the energy that he puts into the food.” Her words are rewarded with a directive from Kandasamy to his assistant: “Give her more sweet, because she likes a lot of sweet sauce.” This is a reference to the tamarind sauce that the Dosa Man supplies along with coconut chutney (‘the spicy sauce’).

Kandasamy sometimes still has to explain his food, but these days his ‘crepe’ description is followed by the assurance that everything he serves is vegetarian and vegan. In fact, he has become a sort of mascot for vegans. His security detail, it turns out, are vegan. Vadas are now off-menu, although if you are lucky—or if you call him ahead of time; his card has his mobile number, fax and email address—you might still get a few. Instead, I order his signature Pondicherry, and, since I am sharing with a friend, opt to try the Jaffna Lunch as well. I decamp quickly when Kandasamy admonishes me to get on along with a stern, “Your food is getting cold.”

Back at home, we dig into the Pondicherry dosa: crisp on the outside and odd on the inside. The Jaffna, though, is amazing, especially the coconut-spice topping (“I learnt it from my grandma”). Moreover, the sambar is a cut above the sweetish stuff one gets in most Mumbai restaurants. The coconut chutney is fabulous: earthy and spicy, it feels more like something someone’s aunt made at home. No wonder I still remember him.

It’s not been easy. It took three-and-a-half years for the Dosa Man to get a licence to start his lunch cart, and six months to build a cart that would meet New York City sanitation specifications. He is now working on of his second cart and planning his third, which will have an even longer grill. Before starting his Dosa cart, he ran a South Indian restaurant in Queens for several years—a far cry from the diving and motorcycle racing he had enjoyed in Sri Lanka. In order to get to Washington Park by 11 am every day of the week, he and his assistants have to begin work at 5:45 am. The preparations include grinding coconut and spices in a stone grinder that he had brought over from India, a process he clearly takes pride in. On weekends, he caters to birthday parties or office parties.

Unlike innumerable immigrants who struggle through long hours and loneliness to make ends meet, the Dosa Man enjoys quite a few perks; because he freelances, he can often afford to take a holiday; clients and friends know it’s best to call ahead or check his status on Facebook: The Dosa Man (Washington Square Park) NYC. His daughter is studying at Columbia University. Although he doesn’t often get to see his mother and sister who are still in Sri Lanka, Kandasamy seems quite content. “I want to do something different. That’s why I’m doing this,” he says.

Until the economy improves, he adds, he is happy operating his world-famous cart. Kandasamy’s fans will be only too glad for him to keep serving up healthful meals for under $6 a plate.