Bollywood Theater's Spicy Sequel in Southeast

The new Division Street outpost of Troy MacLarty's Indian street food hub offers bright spices and international supplies in a cinematic setting.

By Karen Brooks May 1, 2014 Published in the May 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Lauren Lark

Thwack, thwack, thwack. A Mumbai vendor pounds paratha dough on a table as a drumbeat pierces the air. Thus begins a video playing in, of all places, the bathroom at SE Division Street’s Bollywood Theater. In another frame, chef Troy MacLarty frantically rolls his own sheets of the flaky flatbread, a Bollywood house specialty. As the footage rolls on, the Indian street scene unfolds. Washboard food stalls flash magic-carpet colors, hot chai spills crazily from pitchers to cups, and a world of exuberant snacks is conjured from seemingly nothing and everything. Chaos, decay, and beauty are one. 

Step back into the dining room, and a parallel film emerges, with a cast of a thousand customers milling about a backdrop of collaged ephemera, lumbering elephants, and Gandhi shrines. It feels like an Indian swap meet, jammed with tables, collectibles, and sumptuous samosas on metal plates. Above a banquette, banditos from the famed Hindi action flick Sholay blaze across a screen. To eat here is to find yourself in a movie within a movie within a movie, and it’s hard to tell where India begins and Bollywood Theater ends. 

 Not too long ago, MacLarty was a committed (if bored) farm-to-table chef indoctrinated at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse Café, where vegetable innards count as water-cooler talk. Having kicked around Portland’s food scene since 2005, he was desperately seeking his own voice. In 2012, at age 41, he found salvation in a love of Indian street food, which he unveiled on NE Alberta Street at the kitschy Bollywood Theater. 

Diners, ground down like old curry powder after years of the spice lobotomies that pass for Indian eats around here, quickly embraced MacLarty’s true flavors, dispensed with a cut-no-corners philosophy and a kitchen vet’s attention to detail. The MO is fun and accessible, and the format—order at the counter, bus your own dishes—keeps prices low. MacLarty has embraced the life force of a culture and made it personal. That’s the beauty here. Indian families are among the steadiest customers. 

In February, MacLarty debuted his sequel: a sprawling space on SE Division Street. The menu hasn’t yet evolved beyond Alberta’s offerings, but the new spot pushes the potential with a spacious kitchen ripe for experimentation and, in one corner, a market stocked with spices and fresh ghee. 

The classic thali platters—dramatic spreads of sambar, raita, dal, saffron rice, curry, and a floppy paratha to mop it up—are full-meal steals at $12–15.50. But MacLarty really excels at Mumbai street snacks, sides, and Goan-style pork vindaloo, a revelation of hunky, shreddy meat deep in vinegar and slow kick, like barbecue from another planet. You polish it off with animal sounds and sweet, buttery, crumpet-like rolls. Bhel puri, a jungle of cool crunch, marches into your mouth with puffed rice, peanuts, potato cubes, green mango, sev (fried chickpea threads), and a swoop of date-rich tamarind chutney and cilantro musk. Dahi papri chaat, a kind of Indian nachos, juggles a similar but creamier jumble over hard-crunching crackers. Fried okra, cut like flower petals, tastes like sublime potato chips, and those beautifully crisp-edged samosas come on like Indian biscuits and gravy, smothered in chickpea chole curry and swampy, lick-your-fingers juices.  

Repetition intrudes on this happy drama. Every time you put down piles of garbanzos, potatoes, or green chutney, more spring to life in other dishes, like zombies in The Walking Dead. Careful ordering is the X factor here—it’s what separates an India soul-food meal from a heavy, hippie potluck at the Wavy Gravy farm. (And don’t count on the counter service for menu enlightenment.) But most important, MacLarty’s indie hit is ready for its next act: scope and depth. If he deepens the repertoire and taps his farm roots, Bollywood could be a blockbuster. 

A transporting dish of “winter roasted squash” offers a clue where the kitchen could go, each majestically charred wedge deep in roasted flesh and crackling pockets of whole, black nigella seeds, red chile, and fenugreek seeds. The vernacular is India, the freshness pure Portland.

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