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By Michael White
What, until very recently, was wrong with me? What, for that matter, continues to be wrong with the hundreds, thousands, of Greater Vancouver residents who haven’t yet come to Mumbai Local and availed themselves of every menu item their wallet will allow?
Since its opening in Summer 2018, I’d walked past this attractive Davie Village space at least twice a month — aware of its reputation (Alexandra Gill, Vancouver’s highest-profile food writer, raved about it), intrigued by its concept — yet never through its door. I’ve never seen more than three tables occupied at one time while furtively glancing through the windows en route to home or some other, probably less-deserving restaurant.
And now I’ve sampled a small fraction of its menu, and I want to rewind the past two-plus years to redress my neglect. Mumbai Local may very well be serving the most delicious food in the West End, and without question some of the best Indian cuisine I’ve eaten in my life.
Unlike virtually every other Indian restaurant in this city, Mumbai Local’s focus isn’t the Punjabi warhorses North American diners recognize and enjoy. There is no butter chicken here, nor is there anything cooked in a tandoor. The word “curry” appears sparingly, and only as a concession to customers who otherwise might not understand what they’re being offered. True to its name, Mumbai Local’s overwhelmingly abundant menu (more than 40 choices, not including desserts and drinks) is an evocation of the dishes one would find in Mumbai, from where the restaurant’s principals all originate.
Street food is a key part of Mumbai food culture — locals are united in their passion for it, and tourists design their itineraries around sampling from as many hawkers as their stomachs can bear — and the fare at Mumbai Local is heavily weighted toward what you might find at the countless stalls in that city. Take, for example, Vada Pav ($8 for two) — seriously, take as many of them as you can carry! To merely describe them might not inspire a stampede of salivating gourmands, but a single bite should. Inside a delicately sweet slider-sized bun (pav), a golden patty of spiced potato (fried in a wondrous chickpea batter) is painted with both tamarind-date and mint chutneys. The resulting collision of flavours and textures — crunchy and soft; fattiness and astringency; sweet and sour and savoury — is, in its own modest way, a fireworks show on your palate.
Dahi Puri ($8) are hollow, spherical rice crackers the size of a large gumball, each of which has a hole into which you smear your choice of various accompaniments: spiced yogurt; seasoned mashed potato; more of those chutneys, plus another that’s as red as a brick and with heat to match; little shards of fried chickpea noodle called shev. Think of it as interactive snacking in which every bite has the potential to be, in the words of a famous Canadian pitchman, a whole new ballgame.
Chicken Sukka ($10) is described by the menu as “lip smacking,” but I’d compare it to an unrestrained make-out session with the spice gods. Which isn’t to say this is heat for the sake of it. This is spice deployed with thoughtfulness and complexity, perhaps inclined to make you puff out your cheeks and exhale emphatically, but from pleasure and surprise, not pain. The bite-sized pieces of thigh are meltingly tender as well, and as convincing an argument as anything for the abolition of dry, bland breast meat (a point I also made in my previous review, and will continue to make at every opportunity). Mumbai Special Pav Bhaji ($14; note these consistently friendly prices!) finds mashed vegetables cooked in an immodest amount of butter with some alchemical blend of spices. It comes with more of those dream-invading pav, presumably to sop up any puddles of sauce that remain behind, although Kley and I weren’t above eating it by the spoonful as if it were our last meal on death row.
There remain 40-plus dishes at Mumbai Local we’ve yet to explore, as well as reputedly excellent cocktails made with the likes of chai, turmeric, and watermelon juice. The thoroughly casual dining space (including a stunning wall-sized mural designed by Shraddha Kumar, who happens to be married to owner Shreyash Kulkarni) will surely have our patronage before long, although everything we brought home seemed none the worse for having travelled, including the fried items. In the meantime, I don’t know to what extent Mumbai Local has been struggling throughout the pandemic, but I’ll be making as much of a contribution as I can as a consumer to help ensure it survives. This is a restaurant Vancouver needs to rally around, because whether you know it yet or not, you want this food in your life — now and for years to come.
(Photo: Kley Klemens)