Address: 596 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden.
Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday, noon-8pm.
Ras Vatika is the quintessential cheap 'n' cheerful. A true bastion of Dominion Rd, dishing up Auckland's best Indian street food for more than two decades.
Kailash Darji has been cooking Indian street food on Dominion Rd since before it became the go-to zone for cheap ethnic eats. The 52-year-old is proud to be a pioneer. She witnessed, in the early 2000s, the influx of students from Asia trigger a rush of new restaurants catering to their tastes and budget. Darji likes to reminisce about those days, when "petrol cost just 29c a litre and we sold thali for $5."
While petrol prices have increased ten-fold, the price of Ras Vatika's thali has merely tripled (today, a medium thali costs $15). Darji is nevertheless apologetic. She says inflation forced her to hike prices recently, the first time she'd done so in 10 years. Ras Vatika is still undeniably one of the best value places to eat in Auckland, however.
This cosy, no-frills restaurant has exposed brick walls and a tinkling soundtrack Darji describes as "Indian music". There's seating for about 20, at a squeeze, and service is always with a smile (though also slow and a tad absent-minded). It serves dozens of vegetarian dishes from across India. The aforementioned thali, named for the platter its individual components are served on, is a variety of curries, dahls, chutney, raita, flatbreads, and rice.
Darji's most popular dish is masala dosa, a porous crepe made from fermented rice batter with a touch of fenugreek that's spread thin on a griddle and fried in ghee. Dosa are rolled up and stuffed with lightly spiced mashed potato. Paper masala dosa ($12) is the crispiest version; Mysore masala dosa ($15) is spicier and spongier, as is prefered in its namesake city; butter masala dosa ($14) is, as you'd expect, more buttery. All come with fiery helpings of lentil soup and a subsequently much-appreciated ramekin of soothing coconut chutney.
Then there's a solid selection of poori ($8.50-$10). These small discs of unleavened dough balloon into airy orbs when in contact with boiling oil. They're filled with the likes of tangy tamarind sauce, puffed wheat, chickpeas, coriander, boiled potato, yoghurt, fresh tomato, and chutney. Samosa chat ($10) is chopped up samosas topped with a similar mixture to that inside poori. Uttapam ($10-$12) are kind of like crumpets. Made with the same batter as dosa, but cooked to be fatter and softer, topped with your choice of tomato, onion, or paneer. Chole bhature ($15) is a lemony chickpea curry (chole) served with a leavened version of poori (bhature).
Growing up in the North Indian coastal state of Gujarat, Darji had vague ideas of becoming a housewife. But she married a man whose dream was to immigrate to New Zealand and open a restaurant. The couple arrived here in 1991. At first, Darji worked in other people's restaurants - learning both cooking and English from scratch. In 1994, when Darji was 24 years old, she and her husband opened a small Indian takeaway joint on Dominion Rd. In 2000, they moved up the road - and the ladder - to open Ras Vatika.
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Then Darji's husband got sick. As she took on more and more of their business, there was no time for housewifery. Sadly, in 2006, her husband died. Darji found solace in work. Soothingly repetitive kitchen tasks and kind customers kept her going, she says. These days, you'll find her at the restaurant six days a week. A photo of her husband, looking serious in a white shirt, sits beside the eftpos machine.
If it seems this review has taken a sombre turn, make no mistake: Ras Vatika is Darji's happy place. It is a happy place. Bells jingle cheerfully whenever the door opens. A large painting of mystic guru Sai Baba hangs in the kitchen. Darji has a discreet tattoo on her wrist, a symbol representing her favourite Hindu deity.
"I always feel relaxed because Shiva is looking after me," she smiles. Darji's mum, who joined her daughter in New Zealand in 2004, is usually at the restaurant joking with customers from Gujarat, some of whom have frequented Ras Vatika for more than 20 years.
I myself have eaten there for at least 10. Darji's dependable food, serene presence, and sincere farewells - "Have a lovely evening", she calls as you leave - are all very moreish.