The heat rises like someone wheeling up the knob on an old stereo. It starts relatively easygoing—like the namesake combo (the number-five Kerala Meal) with tender bits of chicken in a winter coat of rust-colored spices—but the synesthesia effect of sound from chile peppers emanates. It positively swells. The heat presented itself in a specific location between my ears, a growing loudness like those old THX surround-sound commercials. The audience is listening, and it should be, at this tiny but powerful Indian kitchen in the corner of a gas station in Carrollton.
Raita cools the flames crawling up the side of my face. The yogurt dip is silky, full of garlic and crunch. Tearing parotta flatbread into ribbons, each tug yielding a flaky shell with a chewy-buttery middle, mutes the heat too. This is the moment (or maybe it’s another—maybe when heaps of pickled red onions mingle with the beef cutlet medallions and the doors jangle open in the Food Mart behind you) when you remember that you’re eating a South Indian feast inside a Texaco off the highway. One side of this gas station Food Mart is for chips and gatorade and beer; the other is for biryani and curry. The fried fish has no reason to be this good at a place that sells Doritos 3D Crunch Spicy Ranch chips, but it is all the same.
Mountain-high flavors, ranging from the summer-bright heat of spicy pickles and onions to the creamy and homey-to-the-bones curry spotted with big peas, are presented in heaping scoopfuls for under $10. Regardless of the order, the weight of the takeout container feels somewhere in between a gold bar and a cute puppy.
The loudest thing in the kitchen is the spice. There aren’t many decorations to distract from the meals: the wall is faux brick and a sticky wallpaper, and stacks of boxes of takeout containers are stored in the tiny dining room, blocking some of the tables. Kerala Kitchen, run by Rogin Thomas, is takeout only (Monday–Saturday, 11 a.m–7 p.m.), though one family was provided a high chair for a late lunch with their toddler.
Late on a weekday afternoon, one other patron grabs about $100 worth of takeout. She’s got curry and beef cutlets, the latter of which she highly recommends if Kerala hasn’t run out. They hadn’t, a wonderful thing, because the beef is long-cooked in dark, complex spices, finely ground with a mixture of soft potatoes, and deep-fried into a burgundy-brown shell, shaped and sized as neatly as an Olympic medal. The cutlets are fork-tender, thick and soft in the middle. An order comes with six patties for almost the same cost as a sandwich combo at Chick-fil-A ($7.39). That patron was right: this order is a true beefcake shooting star of a meal. Vegetable curry, the beef cutlet plate, and a Kerala Meal—the combo comes with creamy thoran made from carrots and peas, moru (a bright-spiced yogurt with coconut and turmeric), chammanthi rich with tamarind, hot pickles, and a mountain of matta rice—sets you back less than $30 and is enough food for the whole family. The namesake combo on its own, with fish curry spooned over the moru-laden rice and scattered with hot pickles, is a perfect way to spend 10 bucks in North Texas. Skip the Chex Mix next door. Get real, honest-to-goodness fast food.
About twenty minutes whisks by before the order arrives. Food isn’t rolling on super-heated coils—that would make Kerala Kitchen a convenience store. It’s made to order here, where the sound of crackling oil and hissing steam emanates from the kitchen hunkered in the corner of the Texaco.