A Little India standby for the District:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
Twenty years into its venerated tenure, Jay Bharat is still stuck halfway between a snack shop and a restaurant. A stretch of lilac lights illuminates one specialty: a display case filled with a rainbow of sweets, some shaped like tiny watermelons, others like shrunken slices of pie. The kitchen, however, focuses on thalis, diverse, compartmentalized meals divided into seven or eight separate tastes. Tradition connects the sweet and the savory here, but Jay Bharat continues to anchor Artesia’s Little India because it expertly prepares the best of those two Gujarati worlds.
Gujarati cuisine, the predominantly vegetarian fare from India’s western, Pakistan-bordering state of Gujarat, is well represented on Pioneer Boulevard. Yet none of Jay Bharat’s peers offers quite the same variety. As excellent as Surati Farsan is, it’s best at small bites and take-away snacks. Rajdhani, meanwhile, is defined by its all-you-can-eat thalis, endless meals that litter its tables with constellations of steel cups. Jay Bharat strikes the ideal medium.
Over its decades of dominance, Jay Bharat hasn’t remained complacent. While the restaurant was once little more than a few sticky tables, it’s now a friendly space framed in gauzy drapes and flat-screen TVs that play elaborate Bollywood films intent on cribbing choreography from Busby Berkeley. Meanwhile, Jay Bharat has grown so valuable that it operates its own factory in Pico Rivera where all those sweets and snacks are manufactured.
There are menus at each table, but all ordering is conducted at the counter where Jay Bharat tries tempting you with one (or more) of its treats. Instead, start with a batch of appetizers. There’s the great pav bhaji, which pairs a thick potato, tomato, pea and onion curry with a crisp toasted roll. Spread the curry onto the bread and eat it open-face, or pack as much as you can into the roll and construct a makeshift sandwich. Similar is the pav wada, a sort of Indian slider. The street-food staple is built around a fried potato patty that’s squeezed into a bun and sauced with garlic and red chili chutneys. It’s a starch-intensive starter, but an admirable way to spend your calories.
Pettis, a six-piece plate of dense, fried balls of coconut, raisins, potatoes and nuts, have all the traits of subcontinental hushpuppies. Equally good is the pani puri, half a dozen puffed-wheat balls loaded with potatoes and chickpeas that you dip in accompanying spicy chili water and sweet chutney.
South Indian dosas are offered, but given the restaurant’s western sensibility, it’s best to visit nearby Udupi Palace or Woodlands for those crisp lentil crepes. At Jay Bharat, skip ahead to the thalis. The Gujarati thali is the essential entry point, a massive metal plate combining a range of regional classics. A pile of white rice is splayed out in the center and surrounded by dal (lentil stew), chili-shocked pickles, raita (a yogurt-based dipping sauce), two vegetable curries (separate preparations of cauliflower and okra), kathor (another hearty helping of lentils), two rotating appetizers (selected from the restaurant’s savory snacks), dessert (usually shrikhand, a sweet, strained yogurt with the consistency of butter) and either roti (roasted wheat flatbread) or full-sized puri. Pick the puri and get cracking: split open the airy wheat shells, spoon in bites of each item and mix and match your way to a dozen different tastes.
The Kathiyawadi thali, which features dishes from Gujarat’s Kathiawad peninsula, is just as good. It shares a number of components with its Gujarati relative (including the lentils and curries), but is separated in part by its masala khichadi (rice stained a turmeric-tinted yellow) and flatbread. In this case, it’s bajra rotla, a millet-based flatbread that operates like a charred, grainy tortilla. Use it as a utensil and scoop up each of the excellent curries and dips.
At some point during your meal, Jay Bharat will inevitably be overwhelmed by families so extended they’ll barely be contained by the dining room. And it’s then that the snack-straddling menu really seems perfect: small bites for the kids, a round of appetizers for the adults and tremendous thalis for those with stomach space to spare.
JAY BHARAT 18701 PIONEER BLVD | ARTESIA 90701 | 562.924.3310 | JAYBHARAT.COM | OPEN TUES-SUN LUNCH AND DINNER | FOOD FOR TWO $10-25