Review | Vegetarian dishes from North and South India fuel Vegz in Adams Morgan


Roughly six months after opening their first restaurant together, the co-owners of Vegz in Adams Morgan faced an obstacle of unprecedented proportions: a pandemic.

The neighborhood known for its bustling nightlife and food scene became a ghost town. Like many other restaurateurs, Paul P. Alias and chef Swarn Singh a pair of Indian immigrants who met working in a kitchen 15 years ago decided to close up shop. They each had two decades of experience under their belt but didn’t know how they would manage without staff, as disrupted public transportation and drastically reduced income made it impossible to keep employees on. Then, a few weeks in, the two men remembered they still had each other.

“We both [started] working as servers, chefs, dishwashers, everything,” Alias recalled of the year and a half that he and Singh spent running the Indian restaurant on their own, during which they limited business to carryout for about nine months. They had each poured 20 years of savings into the joint and, even under extraordinary financial strain, were determined to keep it afloat.

The menu at Vegz embodies that partnership, offering food from their respective heritages. An array of crepe-like dosas and other South Indian breakfast items such as fried vada and steamed idli nod to Alias’s upbringing in Kerala, a state on the country’s southwestern coast. Classic curries like dal makhani, chole and the customer favorite paneer tikka masala draw from recipes Singh picked up in his mother’s kitchen in the northern state of Punjab. And then there is the universally beloved street food, including a variety of chaats — savory snacks that combine different chutneys and fresh vegetables with a crunchy (and usually fried) carb.

The dishes, while varied in background, are unified by a lack of meat. Singh grew up and remains vegetarian, while Alias was vegan for a considerable amount of time. “We were looking for 100 percent vegetarian options in the Washington, D.C., area,” Alias said of the inspiration behind Vegz. There were few others in the market, particularly serving Indian food.

The casual restaurant also works to remedy the considerable lack of South Indian offerings in metropolitan Washington, which is what compelled me to swing by in the first place.

Several Saturdays ago, I woke up after a night of drinking with an aggravating headache, in deep need of comfort food. I trudged down 18th Street NW — the sun shining a little too bright, the plinks of a pickleball hitting the nearby court a little too loud — until my gaze locked in on the word “dosa” printed in bold on a sidewalk sign across the street.

Never had a dimly lit basement called to me so intensely.

I grew up eating dosas at home and was pleased to find Vegz — pronounced “veeg-z,” a name suggested by Alias’s wife — offered several varieties of the lentil-based breakfast, including the traditional masala dosa, stuffed with a potato filling, and a chili-spiced Mysore masala dosa that leaves your tongue tingling. I felt my fog lift with every bite of uthappam, a thick vegetable pancake made with fermented rice batter. That sourness cuts through the spongy texture, a dynamic blend even before you dip it in coconut chutney.

Since the pandemic, Alias estimated that takeout constitutes roughly 60 percent of Vegz’s business. When I went back a few weeks after my first visit to try some of the dosas with a friend, I noticed that even customers who dine in receive disposable plates and plastic flatware — not the most eco-friendly choice, one of my few qualms with the reliable spot. (The others include the lesser quality of the restaurant’s sporadic Indochinese fusion offerings, such as the too-small bites of cauliflower used for the gobi manchurian.)

The dosas themselves? Delightfully crispy and served with a side of sambar, a lentil stew offering its own hint of sourness with the addition of tamarind and tomatoes. These are also a favorite among customers, according to Alias, who said the restaurant was able to survive the pandemic only thanks to the support of the local government and loyal customers. He refers to Singh as his brother — and to Vegz, therefore, as a family affair — but extends that level of gratitude to everyone who comes by.

“It’s not a one-man show,” he said. “It’s a team effort.”

2120 18th St. NW, 202-621-8138. vegz.us.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Nearest Metro: Dupont Circle, with a 0.6-mile walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $6-$16 for most items on the food menu.



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