The lipsmacking bhel puri at Desi District in Irving

The lipsmacking bhel puri at Desi District in Irving

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

What if I told you it is possible to find an ethereal, fragrant and just about perfect version of biryani, the luxuriant Indian rice dish, at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night? That you'd have to wait in line at a deli to get it, and that you'd be in an otherwise deserted strip center on a stretch of Riverside Drive in Irving? And that, if you could, you'd want to order everything else on the menu?

That was the situation the first time I stepped into Desi District, a cool little Indian market and deli that might be the best-kept secret in D-FW. I had not come in search of biryani. It was a random stop at a place with the lights on, a place that hadn't really been written about but had developed a following that was filling every seat and forming a line that stretched from the counter to nearly out the door.

It was stylish, too, with bright yellow-and-white walls splashed with graffiti-style artwork and funny snippets of text. Half the place is devoted to a well-stocked Indian market; the other half is a casual restaurant where you order at the counter and grab a seat, if you're lucky, at a communal table or a banquette.

Dining on the left, grocery on the right

Dining on the left, grocery on the right

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

As the line inched forward, I squinted at the menu. It was huge and hard to get your mind around: traditional dishes and street food from every corner of the subcontinent plus fusion concoctions like a pav bhaji fondue and tosas, which are a taco-dosa mashup filled with paneer, chicken or lamb.

To the side, a group of guys was standing and eating crisp puffs of pani puri — an eggshell-thin snack filled with potato speckled with mustard seeds, coriander and chile — like this was a cocktail party without the cocktails. I could almost taste the air itself, it was so delicious with the aromas of fresh cardamom, cumin, rose, saffron and other spices.

We placed our order and were handed a receipt, but no number or identifying gizmo for the table. Somehow, amid the chaos, our dishes began to emerge, one by one, about 40 minutes after we ordered.

Lamb tosas

Lamb tosas

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

It was some of the best Indian food I've eaten anywhere. That tosa, like most of the menu, was cooked to order, so the wrapper was still lightly crisp and tender, like a dosa, and rolled up into a snack about the size of a taco. Mine was filled with an inspired combination of spiced tandoori lamb and shredded cabbage, tangling with drizzles of mint-chile yogurt sauce and garlic sour cream.

Bhel puri, the traditional street snack, was a craggy mound of electric yellow: the tamarind-tinted puffed rice and tiny sev bhujia noodles concealing a crunchy, spicy, even liquidy version of the dish more like a lip-smacking salad, with diced cucumber, tomato and papdi crackers, all dressed with yogurt, mint and tamarind, and a good helping of chaat masala, the tangy black-salt spice blend.

Pani puri

Pani puri

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

We got pani puri, too, and I soon learned why it was a good idea to eat it standing. Served at the table, where you fill the rice puffs yourself and drizzle them with a "water" seasoned with coriander, mint, lime and chile, they are just OK. If you order them to be eaten on the spot, a server fills and dunks them whole into a bath of coriander water, capturing more liquid in the shell and allowing you to eat in the fleeting moment when the flavors come together and before the entire thing falls apart.

The dishes were so good, and the menu's mind-bending array so intriguing, from regional curries to butter chicken tikka burgers, that I went back again on Sunday afternoon. Though the place was now calm and low-key, the food was as fresh and delicious as I remembered, and the goat biryani the best of all.

Is good biryani the holy grail for Indian food lovers? It is for me. At Desi District, biryani is carefully cooked in the style of Hyderabad, in India's south, and available only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Each long grain of basmati rice is distinct and touched with shades of golden saffron, with bits of clove, green cardamom, cinnamon and curry leaf revealing some of the alchemy behind the dish. Dig into the rice and you'll find chunks of goat — called mutton on the menu — marinated and braised on the bone to melting tenderness.

Goat biryani

Goat biryani

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

The dish could have been served regally on a platter, but like the others, it arrives in a square paper tray, enough to serve four, for $11, plastic containers of peanut-tamarind sauce and thick yogurt raita included.

Desi District was shaping up to be a thrilling discovery. But first, there came a reckoning: After those two really good meals, I learned that the restaurant has a C health inspection score. And it has plenty of company. I looked up the scores of every Indian restaurant I could find on the city of Irving website, and of those 47 restaurants, 30 have C's (the lowest passing grade) and 16 have B's. There is just one A: Patel Brothers, a grocery store that also sells prepared foods.

Could there be an overarching reason for the consistently low scores, say, cooking techniques that are at odds with the rules? I asked Greg Miller, Irving's inspections director. "We've never done any analysis to see what's common in those reports," he said, and laughed when I asked if he would eat at a C restaurant. "Sure, I've been to them."

So, you too have a decision to make. Because if Irving is one of the best cities in North Texas for Indian food, and all of the Indian restaurants here have C's or B's, then you're going to have to be OK with a low score to eat good Indian food.

Tandoori chicken

Tandoori chicken

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

For me, for this restaurant, the answer was yes. Over the next two visits, there was another terrific biryani, this time with lamb keema, the citrusy, spicy minced lamb. Tandoori chicken was lightly marinated and charred with none of the dryness that you almost always find in the dish. The basmati rice served with it, seasoned with cumin seeds, coriander and fresh curry leaf, was good enough to eat on its own.

Oreo pan

Oreo pan

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

The spring dosa, the size of a wand, was warm and crisp from the griddle, filled with a soothing mixture of potato and vegetables. A curry platter, featuring a mild northern ginger chicken curry, arrived in a tray like a TV dinner, including a square holding dessert: cubes of junnu, a milk jelly scented with cardamom. One of the least likely desserts — an Oreo restuffed with herbal pan, coconut, fennel and rosewater — turned out to be the most delicious.

Some of the fusion dishes do go terribly wrong, including two Indianish variations on burgers made with sticks of hard, fried paneer or battered-and-fried sticks of butter chicken. Both were cold and nothing about them came together in burger harmony.

As good as the simple steamed chicken momos were, the version of the dumplings covered in an angry red "Manchurian" sauce was leathery and overwhelmed by the fiery dried-on spices. Lassis tended to be overly sweet, as did many of the desserts as well as the "sweet" variation on nimbu masala soda — a beguiling drink in its unsweetened, "salt" version flavored with masala spices and diced fresh ginger.

Nimbu masala soda

Nimbu masala soda

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

That recipe, and many of the others, is adapted from the family recipes of the four owners, two couples whose husbands are friends from their days at Southern Methodist University. They opened the restaurant in August 2017 after a year of cooking and creating dishes together, Aishwarya Alladi, one of the owners, explained. All four were engineers at Texas Instruments and Ericsson, until Alladi quit to focus on the restaurant. All four are from Hyderabad.

They decided to use only fresh ingredients, which is part of the reason the market is connected to the restaurant (they were also sure that a market would help draw customers). And they modeled Desi District on, of all things, Eatzi's. "We liked the freshness, the grocery, how the meat is cooked in front of you," Alladi says.

On this day, a shiny Desi District food truck is parked out front, painted in the restaurant's black and yellow graffiti-style artwork and trackable on roaminghunger.com. When it hits the road in June, a menu that nimbly bridges tradition and fusion, not to mention a couple of continents, will start crossing the borders of Irving and Dallas, Plano and Frisco.

Desi District

Rating: Two stars

Price: $ (chaat $3 to $7; momos and other appetizers $6 to $11; burgers, tacos and tosas $6.50 to $9; kebabs $7.50 to $9; dosas and idli $4 to $9; biryani $9 to $11; curry platters $8 to $11; desserts $2 to $4; soda, lassi and other drinks $1 to $5)

Service: Order at the counter, then wait at a table (without a number!) and somehow your dinner will find you, one dish at a time. It is generally fast, but on a busy weekend night, made-to-order chicken tandoori can take an hour. First-timers can rely on the cashiers to help sort through the long menu.

Ambience: On a Saturday night this cool little Indian deli and market in Irving can be as hopping a club, with a line nearly out the door, every seat filled and people standing and eating crisp puffs of pani puri or tosas, which are a taco-dosa mashup. Other times are calmer, but no less delicious: Try traditional and fusion dishes, regional street foods and incredibly good biryani made only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The market highlights spices and snacks, halal meats and surprises such as hard-to-find Indian mangoes, tubs of house-made dosa and idli batter and beautifully fresh curry leaves.

Noise: Easy listening (68 decibels)

Drinks: You'll have to order takeout to enjoy a beer with your dinner; no alcohol is served, and BYOB is prohibited. Still, the drink choices are as dizzying as the rest of the menu. Most noteworthy is an excellent nimbu masala soda, with savory spices, salt and diced fresh ginger fizzed with your choice of either sparkling water (the "salt" version) or Sprite ("sweet"). A half-dozen lassis include a good salt lassi and too-sweet mango lassi. Plus: milkshakes, fresh fruit juices, tea and coffee.

Recommended: Bhel puri, lamb tosa, chicken curry platter, tandoori chicken, goat biryani, lamb keema biryani, oreo pan, nimbu masala soda

GPS: A seat at the communal table is the perfect spot to scope other orders and get recommendations.

Address: 6451 Riverside Drive, Irving; 972-913-4730; thedesidistrict.com

Hours: Sunday-Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. (Note: limited menu daily from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.)

Reservations: Not accepted

Credit cards: All major

Health department score: C for the restaurant (April); A for the grocery (January); B+ for the meat market (January)

Access: Restaurant and market are on one level.

Parking: Free parking in strip center lot

Ratings Legend

4 stars: Extraordinary (First-rate on every level; a benchmark dining experience)

3 stars: Excellent (A destination restaurant and leader on the DFW food scene)

2 stars: Very Good (Strong concept and generally strong execution)

1 star: Good (Has merit, but limited ambition or spotty execution)

No stars: Poor (Not recommended)

Noise Levels

Below 60: Quiet. Maybe too quiet.

60-69: Easy listening. Normal conversation, with a light background buzz.

70-79: Shouty. Conversation is possible, but only with raised voices.

80-85: Loud. Can you hear me now? Probably not.

86-plus: Tarmac at DFW.

Prices

Average dinner per person.

$ -- $19 and under

$$ -- $20 to $50

$$$ -- $50 to $99

$$$$ -- $100 and over

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