The intersection of 41st and Fraser can be overwhelming. The rumble of heavy traffic and the frenetic energy of teens milling around John Oliver secondary school contrasts with the silence of Mountain View Cemetery. It’s an atmosphere that’s about as far from downtown Vancouver’s shimmering high-rises as you can get.
Madras Dosa House offers a remarkable sanctuary on the northeast corner. With mustard-coloured walls and two televisions running a loop of Bollywood dance numbers and TSN, stepping inside feels like walking into a happy family’s living room.
And indeed, it almost is. The Nadarajah family opened Madras in 2009, before dosas became ubiquitous in the South of Fraser neighbourhood. It’s a mom-and-pop operation in which dad Thevarajan and mom Loca cook. Their 18-year-old daughter, Theruga, who is a John Oliver senior, often serves—quietly and efficiently, without the forced perkiness that characterizes most servers her age. Brothers Vithursan, 20, and Kesor, 12, help when they can.
Madras is the family’s first restaurant. Thevarajan grew up in Sri Lanka, working in his father’s rice factory before immigrating to Canada in 1987. He spent nearly two decades working in Toronto’s Greek and Italian kitchens before the family moved to Vancouver, opening Madras soon after.
“When we came to Vancouver, there were very few dosa restaurants,” Thevarajan said in a phone interview between the lunch and dinner rushes. “But customers were asking for them.”
Madras’s dosas are things of beauty. As thick and nearly as long as my arm, the freshly cooked crepes are crispy on the edges and soft in the middle. They’re made of rice and lentil flour, slightly fermented, and are filled with a variety of flavourful stews—for the crazy-low price of $6.99 (an ongoing special for all dosas until September 30 and after that for the daily special).
For dinner one night, I tried the palak paneer masala dosa (with potato, paneer, and spinach), and my companion had the chicken masala dosa. I was expecting the filling of mine to be mostly potato, with flecks of vegetables. Instead, it was rich and dense with spinach and paneer. The default spicing is medium-hot—spicy enough to refill the water glass a few times. All dosas come with two chutneys, coconut and tomato-coconut, that add sparkle to the meal. They’re also accompanied by sambar, a carrot and zucchini soup that can be used as a dip (as the server suggested).
Each of our dosas was a meal in itself, but we also shared the chicken biriyani. Served with a thick tomato-and-lemon-juice raita, it was so delicious that we both ate too much. Dinner with house-made chai and enough leftovers for lunch the next day came to $28 before tax and tip.
For lunch one Sunday afternoon, I took a friend who wanted to break out of her dining rut but can’t tolerate spicy food or dairy. She was eager to try Madras, which offers mild versions of its dishes upon request. She enjoyed her lamb masala dosa, which was gentle enough for her sensitive stomach.
I tried the kothu paratha, a dish of shredded roti fried with onion, egg, and chicken; seasoned with fresh cilantro, turmeric, and chili powder; and served with chicken gravy. This dish reminded me of turkey stuffing, only lighter and with more defined flavours and textures. (It would make a fantastic addition to a Thanksgiving potluck, and you can order it for pickup.) But the star of my lunch was the rasa malai dessert: a cold, cardamom-infused milk pudding garnished with crushed pistachios. Sweet yet fresh-tasting, it was the perfect end to a spicy meal.
I also took an order of the deep-fried, marinated boneless Chicken 65 to go. Even cold later on, these nuggets were tasty—though I wished there were more of them. Everything else on Madras’s menu is such remarkable value that the $7.25 price for this appetizer—as reasonable as that is—seems out of place. Lunch came to $32 before tax and tip.
The shopping district on Fraser between 41st and 49th avenues is worth exploring. Madras and other South Asian restaurants offer takeout, effectively functioning as an affordable alternative to the downtown food trucks.
The area may not be hip, and you won’t find the designer-bag hordes here, but it offers a compelling alternative food scene: more flavourful, more human, and ultimately more enchanting.