The word curry means different things to different people. For some, it’s a blanket idea of Indian or Thai cuisines. Some think curry powder, curry paste, or curry leaves or even associate it with a specific sort of smell. But the truth is there’s no clear-cut definition of what is or isn’t curry depending on which country you’re in. For Chef Howard, if anything at all, it’s about spice and complexity.
Howard’s culinary influences are deeply aligned with his roots in Southern Spain, where Moorish occupation infused the local cuisine with a plethora of exotic spices. When he discovered curry, it was a natural fit. And when a space became available on the same Stockton Street block as his famed tapas restaurant 13 Gypsies, he and his wife Brandy Klopp jumped at the opportunity to open a curry house of their own. Thus, Foo Dog Curry Traders was born.
If there’s a focus or theme at Foo Dog (beyond curry, of course), it’s accessibility. The entire menu either is, or can be prepared to be, vegan and gluten free, with the slight exception of the Crab Balls. For Brandy, it’s a social thing. “When you have friends with dietary restrictions and you go out to eat together, chances are, someone is going to suffer,” she explains. “So the idea was to create an environment and a menu where everyone can eat and leave full and happy without sacrificing anything.” For Howard, a man known in culinary circles for his love of cured meats, it was more of a challenge. “I realized I can make this stuff vegan, gluten free, and taste great, so why wouldn’t I?”
It’s something they take very seriously even though neither of them is vegan or gluten free. Their commitment to the concept goes well beyond lip service. The kitchen at Foo Dog has separate fryers and cutting boards for meat and vegan ingredients and Brandy even insisted on purchasing a gluten tester to make absolutely certain not a speck of gluten enters the kitchen or unintentionally makes it onto someone’s plate.
Foo Dog’s standard menu consists of eight distinct curry preparations from around the world. Cultures from Japan, India, Malaysia, Singapore, and more are represented. There are also several non-curry (but still Asian) dishes of varying degrees of authenticity such as Spam Fried Rice, Korean Jap Chae, and a Japanese Wild Ginger and Mushroom Noodle. The starters are worth exploring as well. I find the Zucchini Fritters particularly satisfying but you can trust me that nothing sucks.
As Chef Howard’s culinary attention is now focused squarely on Foo Dog, he occasionally finds the time to develop daily specials that supplement the already stellar menu. If there happens to be one featured when you go, here’s some advice: get it! The regular items will be waiting for you next time and I guarantee, you will be back. You don’t want to miss the boat on Bulgogi Tacos or a French-style Vadouvan Curry. Nor do you want to regret skipping out on appetizers like Salt and Pepper Seafood or Foo Dog-style Jalapeno Poppers because specials like these are where chefs like Howard truly shine.
If you’re looking for specific recommendations though, Chef Howard’s favorite is the Spinach & Chickpea Masala, a completely vegan take on one of the United Kingdom’s most popular dishes. “It doesn’t need meat,” Howard says of the time-intensive menu item. A single batch of the tomato-based dish takes as long as eight hours to prepare, provided one doesn’t take shortcuts. And Chef Howard abides no shortcuts in his kitchens. He’s right, too; it doesn’t need meat. Although mild on the spice level, it’s an intensely flavorful and satisfying dish with the chickpeas providing heft in the place of meat and packing considerably more protein than you might think.
Although she laments the removal of the Chicken Laksa, a brothier noodle curry, Brandy’s current favorite is the Lime Curry with beef, a recipe based on the traditional Cambodian amok. Citrusy and bright, this dish is also mild but intense. It leans more towards the fresh, herbal end of the curry spectrum, making it a great choice for someone who finds the spice factor of curry off-putting.
The overwhelming majority of customers however, prefer the Lion City Lili. Inspired by the curries of Singapore, it is also milder than most with a yellow ginger-coconut, milk-based sauce served over noodles. It’s likely such a fan favorite for its resemblance to Thai curries though dialed way back on the spice level. It’s so popular in fact that it is featured on Foo Dog’s current official t-shirt.
If I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be the Butter Chicken Over Fries. Far from an authentic Asian tradition, it hails from Canada where it resembles that most iconic of Canadian fare, poutine. Surprisingly though the idea for the dish came from a customer who discovered it as a taxi driver in New York City, where they refer to it as “cabbie curry.” The kicker here though is that the preparation is vegan; ergo no actual butter or cheese makes its way onto the plate. For what it’s worth, you won’t miss it. It’s all the more impressive for its inclusion of the real star of the show–Foo Dog’s Vegan Popcorn Chicken.
Allow me a moment to gush on this particular menu item. Available as an appetizer served with a side of curry ketchup or as a protein substitute on any of the actual curry dishes, the vegan popcorn chicken is a revelation. Forget everything you know about meat substitutes (the Impossible Burger and the entire menu of Murray Hillbilly notwithstanding), I could go so far as to say that it beats the real deal, and I wouldn’t be alone in saying so. Many a voraciously unapologetic meat eater has come to the same conclusion, even to the point of insisting that it isn’t “fake meat.” The secret is the “Foo Powder,” the restaurant’s proprietary spice blend, in the breading.
There are those who complain about Foo Dog’s pricing. Personally, I think it’s unjustified. Most entrees are $12 and the most expensive is $14. The portions are large enough to save half for lunch the next day. You also have to take into consideration that everything is prepared in-house, Howard pays his employees well for their expertise, and they source as many sustainable service items made from paper or cornstarch as possible. Either way, I’d pay double based on the flavor alone. It really is that good.