It may seem as though you're driving all the way to Mumbai, but if you're South Indian and want a little tiffin to make you feel more at home in the Queen City, then Woodlands is worth the trip from Uptown to a tiny strip mall in East Charlotte. Or, if you're vegetarian or vegan and want a little diversion from Bean or Fern, Woodlands would be worth the trip for you, too. But you probably already know this.
It's those who are not South Indian and not vegan or vegetarian that this story is for: No matter who you are what you eat, Woodlands Pure Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine is worth that long-ass, 20-minute drive to Charlotte's eastern outskirts.
Not only are owners Leslie and Agnes Lobo two of the more pleasant restaurateurs in the area, but the authentic South Indian dosai and other Indian and Indo-Chinese dishes the couple cook up at Woodlands on Albemarle Road are stellar.
"We grew up in South India and more people there eat vegan and not meat or dairy items," says Leslie Lobo, Woodlands' chef. "So that makes it very easy for us to prepare dishes like this, and to substitute items in dishes that aren't all vegan so that they are vegan."
- Woodlands is in a tiny strip mall on Albemarle Road
Leslie Lobos's relatives opened the local Woodlands — a family-run South Indian food franchise that originated in the Washington, D.C., area — in 2001. He trained at Woodlands' D.C. mothership before relocating to Charlotte in 2003 to take over from an uncle who moved on to Orlando, Fla., to start a Woodlands there. Agnes joined the business in 2010, two years after she and Leslie were married.
Since then, the Lobos have maintained the basics of the original menu, whose specialty items include the 13 varieties of dosai and two varieties of dosa-like uthappams. Those are the crepe-like pancakes indigenous to South India that are filled with potatoes or spinach or lentils, and often cheeses and chutney.
- Woodlands dosa
Woodlands is at its best with its South Indian fare — the dosai and items such as idly (a rice-and-lentil patty often eaten for breakfast), potato bondas (dumplings), vadas (fried lentil fritters), and rice puffs known as pani puris.
Two Woodlands items to die for are the lassi — a delicious yogurt-based mango drink — and crispy garlic naan that tastes buttery but not overly greasy. And that's one of the wonderful things about Woodlands — none of the food is greasy.
- Woodland's delicious lassi
"If it's a good sauce, no need for oil," Lesley Lobo says.
"And this food doesn't fill you up and then two hours later you're hungry again," Agnes adds.
Woodlands offers some northern Indian fare, too (chana masala, malai kofta, palak and other dishes), as well as a few Indo-Chinese items, such as spicy Sichuan noodles with Indian seasoning. In fact, Leslie returned to India for additional training in Indo-Chinese sauces.
"The Indo-Chinese items are different than your regular sauces," Agnes says. "So, you have to know how to make them different. And these are very popular items now in Charlotte."
The Lobos both were born and raised in southwestern India — Leslie in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Agnes in Mangalore. And both grew up learning to cook from their fathers.
"My daddy was a farmer and we had many family get-togethers and we grew up cooking," Agnes says. "My daddy is a very good cook, so that's how I learned. And when Leslie was young, his daddy had a restaurant in India."
Leslie Lobo got his formal training at Kohinoor College of Hotel and Tourism Management in Mumbai before moving to the United States in 1998 to join his family in the Woodlands franchise. Since 2003, he's continued to tweak the local Woodlands menu to appeal to Charlotte's expanding vegan and vegetarian clientele.
- Crispy garlic naan
"We have had vegan for a long time, but people are more health-conscious now, so there's more of it," Leslie says. "And more people have allergies and have to eat gluten-free. So more people are eating this way now."
"We've been doing this longer than most," Agnes adds. "Woodlands started all vegetarian in 2001 and vegan in 2004, so definitely we were one of the first to do this here."
One thing the Lobos recently did to encourage more vegans is mark the vegan items on the menu. "We now mention on the menu all the items that are vegan or gluten-free — we have VG next to the vegan items, for example," Agnes says. "But there are items that we have that we don't mention are vegan that we can make vegan. Most items we can make vegan."
The uptick in vegan and vegetarian lifestyles in Charlotte has made an impact on Woodlands' business, the Lobos say. "We have been very surprised to see so many more people coming in and enjoying vegan and gluten-free meals," Agnes says. "We used to get more Indian customers, because 10 years ago there were more Indians here. . ."
Leslie finishes her sentence: ". . .working at Bank of America and Wachovia and places like that."
"And then a lot of them moved away," Agnes continues. "But that didn't make our business less, because local people started to support us — plus, people are willing to drive from far away just to come eat here."
It's true. As one Yelp customer noted: "[Woodlands is] certainly not close to us, but the food is delicious, and it was worth the drive."
Think about it like this: You can enjoy that 20-minute drive from Uptown, preparing yourself for a fine Indian meal by listening to a brimful of Asha Bhosle, the famous Bollywood singer immortalized in a 1997 hit by the Indian-led British band Cornershop.
Because everybody needs a bosom for a pillow — or at least a dosa for lunch.