Spicy, homestyle Indian cuisine at Amma's Credit: Serena Gandhi for Billy Penn

Sathish Varadhan originally announced the restaurant he co-owns would open a third location back at the start of 2020. A pandemic intervened, so it wasn’t until earlier this month that the third outpost of Amma’s South Indian Cuisine opened in University City — and immediately filled with customers.

The restaurant, which specializes in homestyle cooking from Indian regions like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, is now up and running at 101 S. 39th St. It joins two other Amma’s locations: one in Center City, and another in Voorhees, N.J.

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To let the staff ease into a routine, Varadhan opted against a flashy social media announcement or ribbon cutting ceremony. But he said the restaurant was packed with diners on opening night anyway.

What makes Amma’s such a draw? Read on for details.

What makes it special

Varadhan, 36, says Amma’s dishes are reminiscent of what moms cook in South Indian homes, so he named the restaurant after the Tamil word for “mother.”

The flavors are modeled after the spicy, vegetable-dominant dishes he grew accustomed to in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu. There are South Indian staples like biryani (a spiced rice mixture with mixed vegetables or meat) alongside Northern Indian favorites like samosas and chai. The restaurant also specializes in Madras coffee.

The chefs at Amma’s grind spices in house to create unique blends for each dish, often adding chili powder with a heavy hand. Varadan said the kitchen abstains from artificial ingredients, like food coloring, preservatives, and MSG, which he said would “Americanize” the recipes.

The overarching idea is that customers are like family, so the University City location resembles a home dining room, with brick walls, hardwood floors, and sunset orange lighting.

Varadhan views the new restaurant as a place of learning, too. The semi-open kitchen — a first among the three locations — makes the space feel like a cooking classroom.

“People look into the kitchen, see how we prepare the dosas and chutneys, and then they gain knowledge of our South Indian food,” Varadhan said.

Thali sets are like a tapas plate for one Credit: Serena Gandhi for Billy Penn

How it came to be

Varadhan immigrated to the U.S. from India in 2010 with the goal of starting his own restaurant.

Before opening his first location in South Jersey, Varadhan said he sampled food from Indian restaurants across the East Coast, and was disappointed by what he said were mild and sugary dishes. Varadhan saw an opportunity to bring the “proper South Indian cuisine” he missed from Chennai to the area.

“There was no proper Indian cuisine at all [in Philadelphia]. Everything was like fusion and modernized,” he said.

To learn the ropes, he got jobs in kitchens at various Indian restaurants. After shifts, he would poll pedestrians in the neighborhood, asking what would have drawn them in.

Varadhan and co-owner Balakrishnan Duraisamy launched the first Amma’s in Voorhees in 2016. They expanded to a second location on Chestnut Street in Center City three years later — and it was a hit, thanks in part to a rave review from influential Inquirer critic Craig LaBan.

Varadan said he appreciates Philadelphia’s overwhelming gratitude. Plus, he loves the people.

“We love to see many types of people at our restaurant,” said Varadhan, “And this beautiful diversity, you can only find in cities.”

Varadhan picked a spot for his third restaurant in University City because of the neighborhood’s diverse student population. An added bonus, he said, is that he feels younger with so many students around.

The dining room at Amma’s was designed to feel like you’re eating at someone’s home Credit: Serena Gandhi for Billy Penn

What it means for the neighborhood

Varadhan envisions his third location as a stopping place for students at UPenn, Drexel, and USciences. He told Billy Penn he believes the layout — which accommodates large parties — combined with family style dining will encourage frequent return trips.

His secret weapon? The menu’s new chaats, which are savory snacks designed for sharing. The Pani Poori, or stewed potatoes and mint-cilantro chutney encased in a shell, is among the menu’s best.

Varadhan hopes the restaurant’s South Indian dishes will showcase the distinct differences between the regional cuisines in India. He thinks Amma’s food will also dispel myths about Indian cooking, like that most dishes are overly sweet curries.

“Anyone can like spicy food too, not just Indians,” said Varadhan.

Chaats at Amma’s Credit: Serena Gandhi for Billy Penn

What to expect when you go

Simply put: lots of spice. Not the everlasting, palate-ruining spice, but the kind that gently cascades on and off the tongue to complement a meal’s flavors.

If spice isn’t for you, however, Amma’s chefs can make nearly all of the menu mild except the biryani, which takes many hours to prepare. Because the kitchen will have to prepare a fresh batch of food without spice, Varadhan recommends calling ahead with the request to avoid a long wait.

Another tip: Bring friends. Amma’s menu is best enjoyed family-style. Dosas (aka savory crepes made from a savory lentil and fermented rice batter) pair with many shareable vegetarian starters, and the entrees. All of them are between $15 and $20, and make for a casual, group-centered dining experience.

For individuals wanting to try a variety of foods, try the Thali sets, which are a bit like tapas for one. Each set comes with a mix of small dishes served in little metal bowls, plus rice and flatbread.

All of the ordering is done online at Amma’s, so whenever your group has decided on a spread, it’ll come out steaming within a few minutes.