Upon first walking into Gokul Cafe, I thought its overhead florescent tubes qualified it for the Worst Lighting in a Columbus Restaurant award. About 20 minutes later, the only lighting on my mind emanated from the virtual sparks shooting off some of the spiciest and most enticing Indian fare I've tried in a while.

Upon first walking into Gokul Cafe, I thought its overhead florescent tubes qualified it for the Worst Lighting in a Columbus Restaurant award. About 20 minutes later, the only lighting on my mind emanated from the virtual sparks shooting off some of the spiciest and most enticing Indian fare I've tried in a while.

Gokul, a recent addition to an Indian-restaurant-dense area of Dublin, takes its name from the village where the Hindu deity Krishna legendarily spent his childhood. Fittingly, Gokul has a few colorful depictions of Krishna on display. Less fittingly, that's it for any attempts at charisma.

Still, the often-busy and tidy establishment - it also qualifies for the Cleanest Bathroom in a Columbus Restaurant award - isn't a total hole in the wall. The spacious place has some token trappings of cushier eateries, such as roomy booths and cloth napkins. But patrons don't show up for Gokul's lackluster ambiance or its often-confused and confusing service, they file in for some of the best Southern Indian food in the area.

That won't be a surprise to diners familiar with Gokul's owner/chef, Santosh Sheregar, who previously helped establish Udipi Cafe as a go-to destination for Southern Indian fare - a vibrant, vegetarian cuisine dependent on rice, lentils, aromatic spices and chilies.

Alcohol isn't offered, but the thick and tangy Mango Lassi ($4) is an excellent foil for the explosive flavors common here. Rich, fruity and only slightly sweet, it's one of the better local examples of the yogurt-based drink.

It goes great with the terrific Gobi Manchurian ($9), one of several entree-sized "Indochinese Appetizers" on Gokul's huge and interesting menu. Indochinese cuisine - a mingling of Chinese and Indian cooking - arose from the wide popularity of Chinese food in India, and this fine example of it could have been called "General Tso's cauliflower." Crackly battered florets are drenched in a fiery but nuanced, luridly red sauce sprinkled with cilantro and fragrant with ginger, soy sauce, sauteed onions and green peppers.

If you prefer the sauce on the side of your fried delights, try the nearly grease-free Mix Vegetable Pakora ($6) - potato, onion and jalapeno fritters in puffy jackets of nutty, chickpea-based batter partnered with jammy tamarind and spicy mint chutneys.

Heading to "Chaat Corner," the menu designation for wildly garnished street-food-style snacks, the Samosa Chaat ($4.50) is a glorious mess. A savory pastry filled with zesty peas and potatoes is smashed, then blanketed with scattershot add-ons that take you to places sweet and spicy, tart and starchy, crazy and happy.

Dosas - enormous, delicate crepes created with fermented rice and lentils (among other ingredients) - are a staple of the Southern Indian table, and Gokul offers a skillfully made, dizzying array. The crowd-pleasing Masala Dosa ($7.50), a thin and crisp, golden-brown envelope containing zingy potatoes and onions, is a good starting place. My current favorite is the spicy, dynamic and wonderfully crinkly, throw-pillow-sized Kaju Rava Masala Dosa ($9.50). All dosas come with sides of sambar (beany and delicious vegetable stew) and a creamy but sneaky-hot green coconut chutney.

If you find the myriad options on the menu a bit overwhelming (a plausible reaction), the Gokul Special ($14) is a multicourse sampler that includes a soup (I like the spicy rasam), appetizers (pick medhu vada - terrific lentil doughnuts), a dosa or utthapam (pizza-like pancake), chutneys, sambar and frothy, unsweetened chai tea.

In the mood for delicious curries? The highly recommended South Indian Thali ($14) - a large round tray loaded with a few uncommon dishes (like the tangy, coconut-paste-and-yogurt-based avial) plus good whole wheat flatbread, rice, chai, a dessert and more - qualifies for the Best Personal Indian Buffet in a Columbus Restaurant award.

Gokul Café

2685 Federated Blvd., Dublin

614-766-2233

gokulcafe.com