While I was researching for our recent trip to Madurai, the name Gopu Iyengar’s popped up often. I read about this all-vegetarian little eatery being touted as one of the best places in Madurai for South Indian snacks, particularly the variety of dosas that they serve and their vellai appam. Of course, we had to include a visit to Gopu Iyengar’s while we were in Madurai!
Long, long ago, a certain Gopala Iyengar was working as a waiter in one of the old restaurants in Madurai. He was a good, hard-working and earnest person, much liked by everyone. When the owner decided to sell the restaurant, he found a willing buyer in Gopala.
In the year 1930, Gopala launched his own restaurant by the name of Gopu Iyengar’s, on West Chitirai Street, near the famed Meenakshi Amman temple. On the menu were traditional South Indian tiffin items like dosas, idlis, vadas, thavalai adai, pongal and halwa. The eatery became hugely popular, with dignitaries like Supreme Court Judge AR Lakshmanan and former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu K Kamaraj making it a regular haunt. Priests from the Meenakshi Amman temple began eating here too. The fame of the hotel spread far and wide, and locals began referring to the place as ‘Moolai Kadai‘ (‘corner shop’ in Tamil, thanks to its location at a corner of the street).
Over time, Gopu Iyengar’s launched a second outlet on the bustling Bypass Road in Madurai, too. They also began selling some of their signature snacks and pickles online. I was also surprised to see this ancient, traditional hotel having an active and well-maintained Facebook page!
The branches, presently owned by Gopala’s son RG Srinivasan, remain open from 6.30 AM to 10.30 AM in the mornings and from 3 PM to about 7.30 PM in the evenings. It is believed that the menu and style of preparation of dishes here still the way Gopala Iyengar planned them out.
Gopu Iyengar’s, West Chitirai Street
While in Madurai, we decided to visit the old, first outlet of Gopu Iyengar’s, rather than the new one on Bypass Road.
The old outlet of the eatery was not difficult to find at all. It is, indeed, a small, hole-in-the-wall place that we might have missed if we weren’t really looking for it, but I am sure the throng of people getting in and out of it would have drawn us to it eventually. A blackboard by the door told us about the day’s specials, all in Tamil.
Both times we visited, the few tables and chairs inside were full of people who seemed to be relishing their tiffin on plantain leaves, slowly sipping on their filter coffee. Both times, we got a table after a short wait, and were soon relishing our own tiffin and coffee too. I don’t know how this works – it felt like we weren’t rushed at all, we were given time to leisurely enjoy our food, with the people waiting outside being managed efficiently as well.
Inside, the eatery retains its old-world charm – the interior still probably looks very much the same as it did when the place was started in 1930. Peeling paint on the walls, framed pictures of Indian gods, an old-fashioned cashier’s desk by the door, barebones tables and chairs, the lack of fancy cutlery, waiters in T-shirts and veshtis, a little washbasin to clean your hands, a bin where you drop the plantain leaves after you eat, all add to the quaint atmosphere of the place.
The food and drink story
Like I said before, Gopu Iyengar’s is an all-vegetarian outlet that mostly serves traditional South Indian tiffin items, and is particularly famous for its vellai appam and dosas. Every day, there are different specials, announced on the blackboard, while the signature dishes as well as the most-ordered ones are served every single day.
The eatery prides itself on serving fresh, homely food, made without the use of any artificial colours, flavouring agents or preservatives.
Over the course of our two visits to Gopu Iyengar’s, we tried out quite a few items, most of which we absolutely loved. I’m so glad to see that this eatery hasn’t taken its reputation for granted and, even after over 80 years of existence, is serving finger-licking delicious fare to its patrons.
Here is a round-up of all the food we sampled at this eatery.
Vellai Appam: At Gopu Iyengar’s, you are brought a plate of vellai appams first, even before you have decided what you are going to have. That is de rigeur. You could refuse them if you want, but why would you do that? These vellai (white) beauties are things of joy, after all. These appams, a recipe from neighbouring Chettinad, are nothing but deep-fried balls of lentil batter. We found them quite delectable, albeit a tad oily. The two types of chutney we were served alongside these appams made for perfect accompaniments to them.
Filter Coffee: Filter coffee was good, wherever we sampled it in Madurai. Gopu Iyengar’s was no exception.
Plain Dosa: The dosa here was very well done, just the way I like it – neither overly soggy nor overly crispy. It was quite homely and delish, a far cry from the thick and greasy dosas that you get in most hotels these days.
Podi Dosa: Again, this dosa was made beautifully, just the right texture, sprinkled with a liberal dose of karuveppalai (curry leaves) podi (powder). The dosa tasted lovely, but we didn’t particularly like the taste of the podi within.
Idlis: The idlis we sampled here were lovely, pillowy soft and delicious. They were quite homely too, as against the grainy idlis that you get in most restaurants now.
Ulundhu Vadai: The ulundhu vadais – deep-fried rounds of urad daal batter – were absolutely delectable. They were perfectly fried, neither overly crispy nor underdone. The coconut chips and curry leaves in the batter took the taste to a whole new level.
Godhumai Dosa: The godhumai (wheat) dosa here was another delicious affair. It was, again, homely and made just right.
Bun Halwa: On one of the days we visited Gopu Iyengar’s, we were lucky to find bun halwa in the list of specialties. The halwa, made with bakery buns, came to our table in a little plastic cup. It was absolutely delish, loaded with ghee and dry fruits. It is a distant cousin of the Hyderabadi shahi tukda, if you may.
Prices and service
We found the service to be quite fast. The waiters were courteous, friendly, and attentive.
The prices are highly reasonable, considering the quality of the food here. We don’t remember the exact amounts of the bills we paid, both times we visited, but we do remember that they were quite, quite reasonable.
Though the place is small and cramped, it is neat and well-managed.
Don’t miss this place whenever you are in Madurai. Do gorge on the lovely traditional fare here!
I’m not sure if the quality and taste of the food at the (relatively) new Bypass Road outlet matches up to this one. The West Chitirai Street branch is the one we visited and loved, and the outlet that I can’t recommend highly enough.
I hope you have been reading and enjoying my earlier posts about our Madurai trip! If you haven’t, here are the links for you.