Just Say Yes: Amma’s South Indian Cuisine Reviewed
Amma’s on Chestnut Street has brought South Indian cuisine to Center City. Whatever you do, trust the kitchen.
When the server asks if you want it spicy, just say yes. Say yes, and keep saying yes.
And don’t worry, because it won’t be too spicy. This is Indian spice, which is smoky, rich, hot but not sharp. It’s not numbing, not punishing. It won’t be too spicy because, as is the Indian way, the heat hits you and then you think it fades, but really, that’s just your body getting used to it. The more you eat, the more complex the flavor becomes, the less you feel that initial shock of burn.
So when the server asks (and you’ll be asked a lot, in a variety of different ways), just say yes. Do you want this normal spice level? Yes. This is a spicy dish, do you like spicy? Yes. Should I tell the kitchen you like spicy? Yes.
Over and over. Just say yes. I made the mistake once of waffling: When I ordered the saag paneer and the server asked, “Would you like that normal spicy?,” I shrugged and, like a dummy, said, “I dunno. Medium?”
That saag was not great. It was weirdly unbalanced—too sweet and too creamy and altogether too heavy with butter and cheese. And that was 100 percent my fault, not the kitchen’s, because I was an idiot and didn’t just say yes.
But it’s fine. I went back and got it again, and this time, it was wonderful. This time, there was this lightning line of cumin that cut through all the creamy softness of the dish and lit the whole thing up from within. You can have the idli in a bowl, like I did—two little domes of lentil and rice flour, puffed like cake, swimming in a yellow sambal sauce that was like eating fire on the first bite and then just breathing it on every bite after. Or you can have them fried, served with chili and garlic sauce. The dosa are lacy like doilies, impossibly thin, and can be complicated in a variety of ways. I had mine with just ghee, the nuttiness and the crispness like eating crunchy butter-flavored air.
The first time, I went for snacks. For aloo bonda (fried dumplings, made with turmeric-spiced potatoes and a little onion—a damn-near perfect food) set atop a banana leaf, and Chicken 65, which ought to be on bar menus everywhere, like buffalo wings or Citywides. It’s basically a big plate of chicken nuggets—if the chicken nugget was dreamt up at the Buhari Hotel in Chennai and took a whole day to make. If the chicken nugget was made with chicken steeped in ginger, garlic and turmeric and deep-fried. Want some nerdy food fun? Look up the origins of the name “Chicken 65” while you’re eating it.
Second time, I was more serious. Ordered like I hadn’t eaten in a month.
Lamb Chettinad, with those accusatory little fingers of red chili mixed into a complex brown sauce that tasted of cumin and coriander, came in a cute little copper bowl, and I braced that with mutton keema that arrived basically as a pile of chopped meat, cut with chili and ginger and raw red onion and cilantro. There was something so basic about the way it ate, so comfortingly savage.
Amma’s is a spin-off—a second location for the original, beloved spot in Voorhees. It’s South Indian, which is something of a rarity in Philly—marked by spikes of ginger and tamarind, unabashed spiciness, and a dependence on rice over naan. The menu is gigantic when taken altogether, spanning everything from tea-shop snacks and picnic foods to lunch combos, curries, rice bowls, and mains for both vegetarians and meat eaters. Still, it operates with an admirable, practiced smoothness. The room is simple, not fancied-up (which I appreciate), not overstuffed like a mini-museum of Indian cuisine. There’s a workingman’s vibe to it. A comforting casualness that’s rare for a sit-down place in Center City to get right. One night, I relaxed in a window seat, watching the traffic go by and reading a book while I ate and ate. On another, I was in and out in 45 minutes, cramming myself with fried foods and saag before I was due to be somewhere else a half-dozen blocks away. Both experiences seemed right. Dropping by for a mango lassi and some saag paneer to go? Also right. Rolling in with a crowd and just flat wrecking the menu? There was a table of about a dozen people on one of the nights I was there, and the floor didn’t even break a sweat.
And that’s precisely the kind of Indian restaurant that Philly needs now—a place for all occasions. Where we can expand our understanding of one of the world’s great regional cuisines. Where dining alone is as smooth an experience as making a party of it. Where the kitchen handles a plate of Chicken 65 with as much talent and care as it does a lamb Chettinad, and where, so long as you say yes every time, everything tastes like the best version of itself you’ve had in as long as you can remember.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country