Who’s the Dosa Man? Behind the scenes of the first vegan dosa cart
Thiru Kumar, known by many as the Dosa Man, talks about his experience operating a small business during COVID-19 and how he became an famous figure in the New York City dining scene.
April 26, 2021
“Have you ever heard of the Dosa Man?” my friend Daniel Cieneva texted me during our 11 a.m. Food Studies lecture last February. Dosa Man? I had hardly heard of dosa, a type of thin flatbread made from a lentil and rice batter from South India and Sri Lanka. How was I supposed to know about the Dosa Man?
My laptop buzzed, another text. This time, it was a link to the Dosa Man’s Twitter page, filled with images of his fans and food, with the question, “Want to check him out after class?” Hungry to learn more about the Dosa Man, I agreed. Before I knew it, Daniel and I made our way over from Waverly Place to the Dosa Man’s cart in Washington Square Park South where we waited in line, a good sign for any restaurant and something I didn’t yet realize was standard for the Dosa Man.
The smell of fresh vegetables and smoked potatoes lingered in the air. I stood on my tiptoes to get a better glimpse of the Dosa Man and his one-man operation, which amassed a line longer than NYU Palladium’s Sunday brunches (remember those?). As he cooked, he would answer the phone in a friendly voice: “Hello, NY Dosa.”
The Dosa Man stood gracefully pouring the dosa mixture onto the griddle, then cooking potatoes. He would then flip the dosas and top them with the potatoes, fresh vegetables and other aromatic ingredients I couldn’t identify. He finished by grabbing a tray and filling it with the freshly made dosa, along with a cup of lentil soup and coconut chutney.
“Next,” he would say, and within a few seconds would begin his process all over again.
Beyond the incredible aroma of his food was a sight even more remarkable. In between ladling the dosa mixture, answering the phone and taking orders, the Dosa Man was conversing with his customers, even going as far as taking selfies with them. I started to understand Daniel’s excitement over the Dosa Man, and I found myself completely mesmerized by this image of the Dosa Man and his cart.
Soon, it was our turn. I took Daniel’s recommendation and ordered the number two, Pondicherry, a dosa filled with potatoes and fresh vegetables. After we got our food, we headed to the commuter lounge in Lipton Hall to eat our lunch there.
After witnessing the Dosa Man’s operations, I was eager to taste the dosa. I took one bite and was hooked.
If you haven’t had a dosa, it’s time you try one. My advice is to eat slowly to maximize your experience — you’re never going to taste your first dosa again.
Tangy, crispy, yet surprisingly chewy all in one. Flavors of the coconut chutney, potatoes and fresh vegetables danced on my tongue. It was a symphony of flavors that brought me (ode to) joy, as each bite presented a new layer of texture, flavor, spice and crunch.
From that day on, Daniel and I had our ritual: Tuesdays afternoons were spent waiting in line for the legendary dosas. This tradition became quintessential to my NYU college experience, but was put on pause due to COVID-19.
While I haven’t returned to the park, I continue to follow the Dosa Man or Thiru Kumar on Twitter to stay updated on his business, NY Dosas, which thankfully survived the pandemic.
Kumar immigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka in 1995 and opened his pushcart in 2001. Since then, he rose to celebrity status through word of mouth, social media and features by an array of magazines. He’s popular with foodies worldwide, as his pushcart is listed in guidebooks in 42 countries and has fan clubs in Japan. In 2007, Kumar won the Vendy Award for the best street food cart vendor in New York City.
It’s been over a year now since I’ve tasted the famous dosas. Curious to see how the Dosa Man adapted during the pandemic, I talked with him over the phone. He told me more about his story and goal to serve the NYU community with affordable and healthy vegan food.
Gabby: What inspired you to start a food cart and open it in Washington Square Park?
Dosa Man: I wanted to start something different like nobody [has ever done]. That’s why I started the first vegan dosa cart in the NYU area because of all the international students. When I started this in 2001, there were a lot of health-conscious people and it was very difficult to find vegan food over there. A lot of my friends went to NYU and I used to hang out in Washington Square Park. My friends said ‘Hey Thiru, there is no place to get good vegan food around,” so I said, “Why don’t I start a vegan pushcart?”
Gabby: How do you make the dosas?
Dosa Man: We make the ingredients in a small restaurant like a commissary. We make those ingredients fresh over there but then make [the dosas] at the cart. My pushcart is a small processing cart, so I have the grill and the fire and everything right there. I make it in front of the people, freshly made. That’s why you see a huge line all the time.
Gabby: I always see the line but it’s definitely worth the wait. What is your relationship with the NYU community?
Dosa Man: NYU brings a lot of my business whenever they can. A lot of professors recommend the students to try [my cart] and they do stories on me and then other students try it out. NYU professors [and] clubs have a catering order with me, so that pushes more for my business. I depend on NYU for a little bit of my business to run all the time.
Gabby: How has the pandemic affected your business?
Dosa Man: When the pandemic happened and NYU closed down their campus, I closed down too for three or four months. I reopened in July and NYU slowly opened too. I don’t have much business from NYU because … most of [the students] are at home doing online classes. I have a fan club from all around the world, so 45 countries. The pandemic has affected me a lot [because there] is no tourism and no students, so that brings down 50% of the business.
Gabby: What is the most popular item on the menu?
Dosa Man: The special pondicherry, it’s a dosa made on the crepe [batter] made out of rice and lentil with fresh veggies and a salad and potato, served with a lentil soup and coconut chutney. I highly recommend it for vegan people, so they get their protein and vitamins all in one lunch. Samosas are famous too because some people don’t have time to wait in line, so they grab a quick lunch and run.
Gabby: What is your favorite part of the business?
Dosa Man: I’m very proud and happy that I’m serving vegan food [and doing] something good for the world and good for the people. New York City is a busy city [and many people] don’t have time to make good food at home because they’re rushing on the subway to class. A lot of students at NYU love me because they get really healthy food for $9 and can go to class and study. Students even come and tell me, your food made me really healthy on campus.
A version of this article appeared in the April 26 e-print edition. Email Gabby Lozano at [email protected]s.com.