Bob Marley-themed Indian buffet, this is an ode to you. Every Tuesday and Thursday, without fail, I stagger up your Astroturf-covered steps, clutching my stomach, famished. The combination of vegetarian Punjabi cuisine and bumping reggae music may seem an incongruent duo, but when you are hungry and cheap, as I most often am, it makes perfect sense. Earthen Jar, a local Mecca for vegetarians, is a hidden treasure — one of a handful of great little spots that collectively contribute to Ann Arbor’s quirky cool. I am not the first to have heralded its awesomeness, but still, this place deserves another round of applause. It is a too well kept a secret in a town this size.
First semester freshman year, I counted myself among the most carnivorous of campus dwellers. I probed the mystery meat of East Quad’s cafeteria, scarfed sloppy joes with the best of the athletes in South Quad and munched on lunchmeat in Mary Markley. After 18 years of solid omnivorousness, my body decided it had had enough and I made a drastic jump to veganism in February 2008.
At first, I wasn’t sure I could be satisfied with purely vegan food. I had eaten meat at almost every meal for as long as I could remember, and I had tried tofu maybe twice. I was also skeptical of the appetite-abating power of the “vegetarian option.” After much research and taste testing, I have learned that there is nothing more pleasing than a belly full of inexpensive vegan Indian food — a satisfaction guaranteed at Earthen Jar.
Located on South Fifth Avenue, Earthen Jar neighbors Jerusalem Garden, another delicious option for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Inside, Earthen Jar’s walls are each painted a different cheery shade: orange, lime-green or yellow, playing up the Trenchtown, Jamaica vibe. There’s ivy growing up the wall around the restaurant’s window, which is a nonsensical touch as whimsical as the inspirational words you will find printed on the sheets of paper tucked under the plastic tablecloth protectors. The buffet is run by a father and son who both constantly have pleasant expressions on their faces. One or the other mans the register depending on the day and, really, to re-emphasize, I’ve never seen these guys not sporting smiles. It’s infectious.
The best part: Once you’ve picked out your selections and paid at the front, the people-watching at Earthen Jar is fabulous. There’s usually a solid mix of students, hippies, old people and Rastafarian blonde guys (the best of ironic treats) to look at in the restaurant. Around traditional meal times the Jar can get crowded, but still it’s definitely a prime date spot for a Friday or Saturday evening, you know, after you’ve blown all that cash down on Main Street and are ready to let your significant other in on your real financial situation.
No woman? No cry! There are takeout containers and tables for one. If it’s a nice day outside, you might choose to sit on one of the benches lining the walkway. If you decide to stay, there’s a water cooler in the corner with steel cups that keep their contents super cold; these are always welcome after some kicking Indian spice. Down to slurp on something more adventurous? Try Earthen Jar’s lassi, a traditional dairy-based drink that also comes in a soy version for all you vegans out there. The taste really helps counter the spiciness of the food if you’re having trouble taking the heat.
Though the menu is constant, there are tons of options ranging from traditional Indian dishes like chana masala and alu gobi to less exploratory ones like macaroni and cheese and lasagna. The Earthen Jar’s dessert game is strong, offering an assortment of cookies, brownies and candies. Laddoo, a sweet lentil ball akin to a doughnut hole, is a perfect finale. They’re only 95 cents each and one is more than enough, though they’re so good you might want two.
Recently I stopped eating vegan, but Earthen Jar still keeps me coming back. I’ve eaten at my fair share of Indian restaurants, but so far, nothing compares to tenaciously shoveling naan into your mouth with Bob winking at you coyly from above.