Critic's Notebook: Hyderabad House

I grew up in Madison, WI, understanding only about four different kinds of cooking: home cooking (lasagna, casseroles, chicken and green beans), Door County lodge food (fish fry or fish boil, cherry pie, ice cream cream puffs) German food (bratwurst from the Brat und Brau or Union Terrace), and Italian-American food (the red-sauce and pasta at Paisan's).

So when I entered my late teens and started to go out to restaurants with friends, everything seemed new.

Going to Hyderabad House took me back to some of my first restaurant experiences in college. Though I attended UW-Madison, one of my closest friends went to school in Chicago, and I'd drive down to visit her whenever we could get our schedules to click. She'd take me out to little Thai and Indian places around Hyde Park or on Devon Street, and my mind was blown by how different food could taste. At that point, everything — pad siew, samosas, chicken tikka masala — was a revelation, no matter how well (or poorly) executed it might be. It was just off of my very limited little experiential grid.

One place she took me was (if memory serves) called Hima's Kitchen. It was tiny — maybe 8 or 9 small tables — and it functioned as part restaurant, part daycare. Indian toddlers ran at high speed from table to table, and you felt very much as though you'd wandered into someone else's home, and that they'd decided (for reasons unknown) to feed you. Sure, you paid a bill, but there was an informality and chaotic feel to the experience that made it highly entertaining. Hyderabad House had the same kind of vibe; our waitress (who I'm guessing is the owner's wife and/or co-owner) kept knocking my spoon when she set down various dishes, and by the end of the meal it had become a running joke: "That spoon is broken!" After running my card at the end of the meal, she thanked me by name: "Thank you very much, James." You're not supposed to acknowledge that you know a customer's name after you run their card. It's not local custom. And yet... hell, I left the restaurant with a silly grin plastered on my face. I was acknowledged as a person, not just a financial unit.

And I as I drove back down Central Ave. to Uptown, I thought a little bit about what I'd eaten, and thought that the food tasted... for lack of a better word, real. Not processed, not picked-over for perfect consistency, not checked against any kind of measurement of what people in Minneapolis-St. Paul at large would want to eat, but checked, instead, against what people from the cook's family would want to eat. There's an intimacy to food like this.

I don't mean to over-romanticize the experience. As I mentioned in my review, I didn't much care for the handling of the meat in the main dishes. I tend to like my meat tender and well-organized, broken up into little bite-sized pieces or chunks. Call it a cultural bias, or call it my personal taste, or what have you, but there you go. And I know there are people who like their food to mildly spiced, or just plain "mild"; as a general rule, the cooking at Hyderabad House wouldn't be for you. But there are so, so, so many places where you can get your main meal exactly how you want it (or how you think you want it, or how you're conditioned to want it) that hitting a place that does things differently — hell, in a truly foreign manner, without compromise — is really a joyous discovery. At the very worst, it's fun to talk about what's different, what's "wrong," what's new about this kind of eating. And at best (here I think of the keema paratha and the samosas), it's a visceral thrill.

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