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Food & Drink

An Indian kitchen in SF that is (almost) as good as my mom’s

Aaha is where the Indian aunties and uncles know to go for a taste of home. And our writer, too.

Butterfish cooked up tandoori-style.
From the tandoori fish to the goat biriyani, there is more than one way to eat deliciously and cheaply at Aaha. | Source: Adahlia Cole for The Standard

The city is expensive, but your dinner doesn’t have to be. In this new weekly column, we hunt down the best restaurants where you can eat like royalty for $25 per person or less.

Outside of my mother’s New Jersey kitchen, the only Indian food I’m excited to eat these days is at Aaha in the Mission District. And it’s not because of the vibes: The walls are a jarring pumpkin orange. At least two industrial refrigerators and boxes full of kitchen supplies stand out in the open. The back of a commercial-sized microwave is clearly visible to diners. And the taps—remnants of whatever restaurant occupied the space in the past—clearly haven’t poured beer in ages. In fact, Aaha doesn’t even serve alcohol.

My enthusiasm comes from the flavors: This little spot does not tone down its spices to cater to a milder American palate. So real are the offerings that Aaha is often filled with Indians—from discerning aunties and uncles all the way down to 20- and 30-something children of immigrants like me. I’m a die-hard regular.

The exterior of Aaha Indian Cuisine
You're not going to Aaha for the ambiance, you're going for the food. | Source: Adahlia Cole for The Standard

Though the big menu includes classics such as chana masala, there are many dishes that you won’t find at your average North Indian butter-chicken joint. Aaha also veers to Southern Indian specialties, including dosas, thin and crispy lentil-and-rice batter crepes, and uttapam, a thick, floppy pancake made from a similar fermented batter. It even cooks up some of the Indo-Chinese food that is so popular in India, like gobi manchurian, fried cauliflower coated in a spicy-sweet sauce.

Of everything on the menu, the tandoori pomfret ($18) is one of my favorite dishes. The whole butterfish is scored, covered in masala and grilled until the edges are charred but the flesh is still moist. A side of cilantro chutney brightens it, while a pile of raw white onions contributes a sharp crispness. I also love the rich bagara baingan ($14), a Hyderabadi dish made of little eggplants stewed in a spicy tamarind-peanut curry which begs for a side of naan so you can sop up all the sauce.

A heaping bowl of goat biriyani is enough for two.
Goat biryani with raita and chutney at Aaha makes a filling and flavorful dinner. | Source: Adahlia Cole for The Standard

But if you’re coming here to fill up cheaply, I’d recommend the big bowl of excellent biryani. Aaha serves four types: one with cashews, another flavored with bright sorrel leaves and a tamarind-laced version. Personally, I’m in a long-term relationship with the fourth, the chef’s “Aaha Special” made with goat. Goat is a very common meat in India, but less so in U.S. restaurants where lamb is often used as a replacement. Aaha’s goat is tender enough to cut into with the edge of a spoon, each piece of meat entangled with the cinnamon-scented, spicy rice. It comes with a cooling side of raita, or seasoned yogurt. The biryani serving is so generous it easily serves two. And if you’re lucky, you might even leave with leftovers. Wash it down with a fresh lime soda, which comes in two variations, sweet or salty—the latter is a bit like a dip in the ocean. Go for the sweet.

Make a meal out of it:

💰 Goat biryani with raita ($18)
💰 Fresh lime soda ($6)

Hot tip: While Aaha doesn’t serve booze, you can BYOB, so bring a crushable red from your favorite wine shop or a cold beer.

📍Aaha Indian Cuisine, 3316 17th St., Mission District