Pongall Indian Grill: A Journey in South Indian Food
My First Time Dining At Pongall
Around 7 months ago I was craving Indian food and really wanted to try something new in that cuisine. I did a quick Google search on different dishes and quickly became overwhelmed by how diverse my choices were. So I took to the Line Cook Thoughts Instagram to ask for recommendations.
As usual, my community did not fail me. A follower of the page highly recommended I try Goat Sukka and a Ghee Roast Dosa. I had not had either before so I was excited to try something new! So I drove over to Pongall Indian Grill and sat down for a meal.
When I sat down for my meal my server was already there with water and asking what I would like for dinner. I explained to her I was trying Goat Sukka and the Ghee Roast Dosa for the first time and she said proudly that they had amazing dosa. I truly did not know what to expect, so she explained to me passionately about what it is.
A dosa is a thin, crepe-like bread that is commonly made out of ground rice, dal and salt. Pongall uses lentils in theirs and in the one I ordered they incorporate ghee, which is in essence clarified butter. The dosa arrived to my table and once I started eating I was hooked. Its size was one to be impressed by, but the crunch and flavor are what really blew me away. Buttery, savory and paired with some amazing sauces to dip in, it was a great dish.
The focus of Pongall is to offer South Indian, more specifically Indian Chettinad cuisine. You will find popular dishes from all of Indian cuisine here but it is the South Indian cuisine in which they highlight. They are known for their dosa and their craft is on full display when you order one.
Chef Feroz Noor
After my first meal I was blown away by the food. I have been back four times since to eat and after the fourth I needed to have them on the blog. So I took a trip to Pongall one day after work to sit down with the team and chat. One of the chefs behind Pongall is Chef Feroz Noor. He is from Chennai, India in South India and originally had training in Italian cuisine.
He shares that Southern Indian Foods are very rich in spices. He compares this to Northern Indian food, which is very rich in cashew and cream. Southern Indian food in his experience really does rely on its spices in its cooking.
Chef shares he does miss home sometimes, especially in the colder months of Maryland which he is not a particular fan of. He used to cook in Michigan and Ohio before settling in Laurel. He moved to the States 9 years ago in order to provide a healthy and authentic Indian meal for those here seeking it.
(Pictured: Left- Chef Feroz, Right- Chef Kowsigan)
Noor started cooking with some larger food brands when he first came here, cooking mainly as a corporate chef. Years later he came up with his own recipes and his own idea of his own restaurant. Thus came the birth of Pongall, which he opened in 2020. He also runs The Crown of India with his friend in Cleveland, Ohio.
Why Become A Chef?
Chef Feroz started cooking in India when he was 19. He wanted to learn some skills at that age and chose to pursue a culinary certificate. He shares that it was this path that has opened up his life to some amazing opportunities in food.
His drive to bring authentic Indian food, particularly from where he comes from, inspired me a lot. To have that passion for your own heritage and to move to a country in order to share more in that heritage is an admirable feat and one that should inspire anyone in food.
I asked Chef what "Pongall" means. He shared their are a few meanings, mainly food, celebration and then the name of a festival. The festival honors Indian farmers and the hard work they do to feed people. “Those people are the real heroes. We are just cooking and making and bringing it to the table. But it is the person working hard somewhere producing everything. that is the hero.”
This reverence for the farmer is one may chefs have, but Pongall even has a page on their site about the struggles of the Indian farmer. Their communication and persistence in sharing their gratitude to farmers is very admirable and it shows by how they utilize ingredients thoughtfully in their cooking. There pride in their food is on full display when you dine, as staff will go in depth on every singled dish they serve.
Opening The Restaurant
The team opened Pongall in September of 2020, in the height of the Covid pandemic. He shares customers mainly bought takeout when the county closed the dining rooms during some moments. Chef shares that they struggled a lot when they opened but were able to pay staff and keep the doors open through the worst of it. Chef Feroz opened and runs the restaurant with his colleague Kowsigan Annamalai.
His team supported his vision for the restaurant greatly during the time of Covid. The person who set up this interview, Karthik, is evidence of the passion and mission of their restaurant. My second time dining was great due to how in depth Karthik went with me on cooking techniques and how Pongall serves its food.
A large part of their business has been catering in this pandemic era. He shares the business is split 50/50 in terms of revenue between dine in and catering guests. The uniqueness to Pongall catering is the fact that they make dosas on site.
“They love it, they want us to come and make the dosas so we do,” shares Noor. They bring a griddle to the site and in real time make the dosas for their guests to enjoy at whatever event they have been hired for. It is a sight to see and one that has made Pongall so sought after on the catering side.
Pongall is a merge of Northern and Southern Indian menus. Northern is a little more popular in the DMV so Chef wanted to lean into his South Indian heritage and provide a menu that compliments that.
We take a deep dive into the dosa and it is quite interesting to hear how and why Chef serves it.
“A dosa is a lentil and rice mixed crepe. It’s a healthier version, in which we make fresh batter and work on the grill. It is gluten free. Once you start working with them they get easier to make. We make almost 60-70 dosas a night.”
Pongall has a different variety of dosas, including potato and one with red chili paste, along with cheese and even chocolate. Dosas are very versatile and so much can be added to provide more flavor.
Chef makes his own spice blends in house. One particular blend of masala for a stew is made with spices such as red chilis, coriander, cumin, black pepper, mehti, curry leaves and urad dal. The spices are toasted and then ground in house. Noor prides himself in his work of using fresh spices at Pongall.
One of Chef’s favorite dishes he makes is Chettinadu, which is a dish made with spices roasted with coconut powder. This is then used in a sauce and you can cook proteins such as lamb or even vegetables in it.
One of their staples is their biryani, which I tried with a friend. It was mind blowing how developed the flavors were and it is the best I’ve had yet. They make it by placing marinated chicken with uncooked rice into a pot.They then layer it and then cook it on a very slow flame to really develop the spices, cook the rice and provide tender and flavorful chicken.
The last item I’d love to share about is their Mango lassi. It is made fresh in house and Cardamom is added to elevate the drink to a new level. Every time I go I order it and there is not much better in terms of eating than when I’m eating the Goat Sukka with a Mango Lassi in hand.
The Case For Eating More Indian Food
Chef grew up eating Southern Indian food and that is why he chose to cook that cuisine. “ A person who is able to eat and grow up in that cuisine is able to serve it perfectly. Our knowledge becomes wider as we eat and taste other cuisines… once you get to know other ingredients you are able to make other dishes.”
He stresses the need to be a student when you are a Chef. Anyone reading this knows just how difficult being a Chef can be and Noor shares it is this struggle that offers you the gratitude for what you do when a dish comes out to a guest and blows them away. “We have people who remember us four months later, it is remarkable.” I can attest as I am one of those people.
“Come and give us a try.” If you are someone who cooks for a living I can not see a better cuisine in which cooking is more focused and appreciated. After talking with Chef I have realized the culinary wonderland South Indian food is. Whether it be the use of multiple spices, a ridiculous amount of advanced technique or a specific care to the way guests perceive a dish it all amounts to a high level of culinary skill.
I urge all of you to look more into South Indian food. To try and to ask questions and to just to immerse yourself in the style of cooking. I have a long journey of trying more dishes and understanding better what chefs in the space have to offer. But I am excited and grateful that Chef Feroz and the team at Pongall were so open to teaching me and sharing their story. If you are in Laurel, Maryland you need to dine at Pongall. You will not be disappointed.