Two CTM plates,” hollers Akash Kapoor. That’s chicken tikka masala. Kapoor is trying to streamline operations at his curry truck but the queue is building up outside. His CurryUpNow, a Mexican taco truck refurbished to sell desi street food, is only a few months old. But word’s gotten around and Kapoor and a couple of new employees are struggling to keep up.
Kapoor says he was really inspired by the success of the Kogi Korean barbecue trucks in Los Angeles. Since then, street food has taken off in the SF Bay Area as well. There’s the Crème Brûlée man, Sexy Soup Cart, Magic Curry Cart. It was only a matter of time before Indian street food joined the bandwagon.
Indian chaat, (unlike crème brûlée) has a certain street pedigree.
“In India the chaat vendors used to come right outside your door,” laughs Kapoor. “That’s how I grew up. That’s how my wife grew up. We like that dirty food.” He hastily points out Curry Up Now has its health inspector’s certificate prominently displayed. His wife Rana, a chatty woman who greets regulars by name, says she’s always missed street food. “Pav bhaaji, kaathi rolls, chholey bhaturey,” Rana lists off her favorites. “I am cooking what I miss. And I am cooking what I want everyone to experience. So when they look at it they say ‘khaya tha yaar’ (we’ve eaten that).”
This, in a way, is nostalgia for a life left behind—of college students on tight budgets slurping pani puri. Street food is like the overtures of first love—a quick, spicy cheap date. It’s the first taste of rebellion—don’t eat that pani puri, that water will make you sick—your mother would warn you.
It’s also probably the one piece of Indianness you have to give up on when you move to America.
Vinod Chopra and his son Amod Chopra say they learned that the hard way.
“I stopped eating it after my kidney disease,” says Vinod Chopra. “Then I had to be very careful, especially of the water. I still sneak it in sometimes.” “Our relatives would call me and tell me ‘Your dad is eating chaat on the street again,’” retorts Amod. “I learned my lesson when I ate chaat and got sick.”
Vinod Chopra could probably be called the godfather of chaat in the Bay Area.
He started a chaat corner in the back of their grocery store in Berkeley in 1987. Now people drive miles to line up for a table on weekends. But, he remembers, when he told his wife that he wanted to sell chaat she was so aghast she almost didn’t come back from a trip to India.
“In India this type of cuisine is mostly done by vendors on the street,” says Vinod. “In the Indian scenario that is looked down upon. You are not a restaurateur. You are just a hawker.”
Viks quickly became a Bay Area landmark. It rapidly outgrew the back of the grocery store and expanded to the warehouse next door. Now it’s moved into its own building down the street. Amod Chopra proudly shows off the dedicated bhatura frying stations at the new venue. But he says they are resolutely sticking to the no-frills ambience, so don’t expect table cloths.
“Nobody has asked us for tablecloths,” laughs Amod. “They have definitely asked us for cleaner tables. We are working on that.”
Viks success has spawned a slew of imitators across the Bay Area. Many regular restaurants have added chaat to their menus. Chaat has entered the foodie parlance.
Vinod Chopra says when he started Viks, he had to do a lot of explaining to do. Indian food, in the American imagination, was all about naan and tandoori chicken. People were befuddled by the chaat menu. “They used to ask what we had in the samosas? Potatoes. What’s aloo tiki? Potatoes. They wondered if we ate anything other than potatoes!” Vinod eventually added some non-veg items like kaathi kebabs and lamb roti to the menu. But he said he knew all along that to succeed he had to appeal to an audience larger than the Indian community.
It worked. Alan Triester says he has been a Viks regular since 1988. A painter, he often stops by Viks, newspaper in hand, before he goes to his studio. “It puts me in another world—the spices, the music, the people,” he says. He imagines this is what an Indian market must feel like. Triester has never been to India but he says eating at Viks has made him want to go.
In a way Viks is about getting that Indian street food experience without having to go there (and risking the diarrhea). And the rise of social media has meant the food cart revolution can spread virally in a way it couldn’t a decade ago. CurryUpNow has over 1,000 followers on Twitter. Really popular ones like the Crème Brulee Cart have over 10,000.
The growing popularity of chaat has meant that newer entrants are finding it a tough market. Jayshree Patel says anyone who has sampled her cooking keeps telling her she needs to open a restaurant. But she fears there is a real glut of desi eateries in the South Bay. Her husband’s job does not allow a move out of the area to a place like Sacramento where they might have an easier time starting up a restaurant. Instead she decided to try something smaller with less overhead—the back of Sugandh grocery store in Milpitas.
“It’s small, I can only do 5 or 6 items,” she says. Other stores have asked her to open a chaat counter as well. But she prefers instead to cater chaat parties at home. Even there she won’t cater for more than 100 people. Chaat parties are becoming more popular. You can have it at home. Chaat ladies like Patel take care of the aloo tikis and dahi sev puri. They will come and set it all up for you. “I don’t have to use your kitchen at all,” says Patel. With the economy down, she says the home catering business has taken a hit as well. “People say it’s too costly,” she says. “But it’s hard work.” But she has adjusted her prices as well. Instead of 12 dollars for a 4-item plate, she has three items for a dollar.
Others like Akash Kapoor at CurryUpNow are giving their menu more of a multicultural twist. For example, they have chicken vindaloo burritos and saag paneer burritos. “And we also have the weird burrito—it’s whatever I feel like that day,” says Kapoor.
Paawan Kothari is trying a whole different tack—chai on a bicycle. “You need something unique, otherwise the barrier of entry is too high,” says Kothari. She decided what was missing in the street food scene was some good chai. Within ten days she got a bicycle trailer made, added carafes and a thermos and took it down to Dolores Park in San Francisco. A burned out marketing strategist at IBM, Kothari suddenly found a new passion.
“I can’t say I was passionate about chai,” she chuckles. “I was more of a coffee drinker really. And I used to just use tea bags.”
But the chai was really the excuse. “I realized how much I enjoyed meeting people,” she says. “And it allowed me to be creative.”
She started off with masala chai. Soon she was experimenting with mint and lemongrass, cardamom and ginger. She’s even done Mexican chocolate chai and green chili chai.
But the food trucks have also attracted their share of problems. Each city has its own permit laws. For example, Burlingame doesn’t require permits but the truck needs to move at least 500 feet every hour. Palo Alto does not allow trucks on public property. San Francisco has tough sanitation rules. There is also some opposition. Bricks and mortar restaurants complain that food carts steal their business with none of their overhead.
“We have been called carpetbaggers,” says Kapoor. “On our very first day, a lady who is a restaurant owner called the cops on us. But the cops said that we were permitted to be there.”
Burlingame sent out surveys asking residents to weigh in on the flurry of food carts. Those results, says Kapoor, were largely favorable to the street carts.
The popularity of street carts means cities are having to figure out new rules. Kothari was part of a delegation that met with San Francisco supervisors recently. She says the permit process right now is really about taco trucks which need three-part sinks and bathroom facilities and refrigeration units. They don’t really work for vendors like her who might be parked somewhere for only two hours. But she says the permits will have to adjust in order to accommodate the street carts because their popularity continues to rise.
“It’s a more social way of eating than restaurants,” says Kothari.
But it’s not just about what street carts are bringing to the neighborhood. Kothari says going out on the streets with her chai cart has also helped her.
“I feel so much more part of the community now. As an immigrant I always felt this is a place I live in. But I didn’t feel I belonged. Now I am part of my neighborhood. I am part of the street cart movement. If I don’t go out for a few days I feel the pressure of people looking for you.”
Kapoor understands why restaurants gripe that street carts don’t have to pay the kinds of rents a restaurant does. But he says they have to contend with their own problems—like truck accidents (they’ve had that) and the weather.
“We probably do 20% business when it rains. On the other hand that might be better than a really gorgeous day when people want to do other things,” says Kapoor. “Our perfect weather is in between—not raining, but not a perfect California day.”
Kapoor has big plans for his street carts. He wants to have five trucks in the Bay Area. “And I want to do Panda Express style kiosks in malls,” says Kapoor.
Amod Chopra at Viks vehemently opposes franchises.
“I think here are two elements to this—chutney and passion,” says Amod.
He thinks franchises will dilute both. He wants to keep Viks the way it is—one of a kind where a brain surgeon and a newly arrived college student get treated exactly the same. Both have their names hollered in the cavernous dining hall when their food is ready.
Jayashree Patel is waiting for her green card to decide if she wants to open a restaurant or not. She worries right now a restaurant will leave her little time for her five-year-old.
Paawan Kothari is expanding into Green Coriander, her venture into a delivery service for home cooked Indian food with organic ingredients. “I don’t want a restaurant, just a pick up window,” she says though she fantasizes sometimes about a train station style chai shop with stubby little glasses. But first she’s busy figuring out if she wants to try a Bhutanese salty buttery chai.
But while Kothari dreams about creating a chai franchise so every city could have their own chai cart, she concedes as a business her chai on a bicycle is not raking in the cash. It’s still more about the passion.
Amod Chopra of the hugely successful Viks would agree. “We want chaat ourselves,” he says. “The reason we run the chaat shop is so we can have an endless supply of chaat.”
Sandip Roy is the host of New America Now, a news magazine show on KALW 91.7 FM, produced by New America Media.
Chaat in the Southland
Lovers of Indian street food in southern California may have noticed the brightly colored Dosa Truck, with its painted eyes and colorful motifs. Leena Deneroff, who runs the truck, is not Indian but “I’ve been on an Indian spiritual path for many years,” she says. She was introduced to the dosa over 20 years ago at an ashram in the United States, and several trips to India only reinforced her affection for the humble street food.
“The idea of the Dosa Truck is affordable, community-based food,” says Deneroff, who makes dosa batter the old-fashioned way (lentils are soaked and ground afresh every day). She gives it the traditional potato filling a more nutritious twist using ingredients like fenugreek and spinach leaves, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and cottage cheese. “I also fill up the dosa burrito-style,” she adds. It’s a way of offering value. Her most popular offering is the Slumdog Dosa, where she uses a proprietary paste of fenugreek leaves as a pesto, filling the dosa with cottage cheese, spinach and tomato chutney.
Her clientele is a diverse one. The Dosa Truck makes stops at college campuses, office parks, artists’ villages, and communities supporting alternative lifestyles. “I do get a lot of support from the Indian community,” says Deneroff, who adds that her Indian American customers are surprised to see a Caucasian face doling out the dosas.
Is the concept economically viable, given that the Dosa Truck serves pure vegetarian food? “We are pretty popular,” says Deneroff, but the truck has had to contend with an explosion in competition. In the nine months since the Dosa Truck has been in business, the number of trucks offering street food has jumped from 5 to 85. “Every ethnic group in the city is out there with a truck,” laughs Deneroff. Her only competitor serving Indian food is the India Jones Chow Truck, with a menu of north Indian offerings.
In Artesia, located in southeast Los Angeles County, Sailesh Shah is trying his own experiment with Indian street food in the unusually named Mumbai Ki Gallsiyon Se café (MKGS). The name literally means “from the streets of Mumbai.”
“The first thing I said to my wife when we landed in the United States was ‘I will have a restaurant called Mumbai Ki Galiyon Se one day.’ No joke,” says Shah. Thwarted by the astronomical real estate prices in Mumbai, he saved up money as a software engineer to pursue his dream in this country. “Here I can rent,” he says. “Besides, food customers are the same the world over.”
MKGS serves true Mumbai street food, the kind eaten by the laborers, office goers, and other members of the middle class in the Indian metropolis. Inexpensive yet nutritionally well balanced, the food is heavily based on lentils, sprouts, and nuts. Bombay pao bhaji. goda masal bhaath, usal pao, sabudana vada—the names roll off Shah’s tongue as if reciting the daily specials to his customers.
Shah’s wife Shruti is the food expert, though Shah himself is a certified chef from the Pasadena City College. “The restaurant feels like home,” says Shah, who prefers to have his location brightly lit and welcoming. “I’ve never understood why people would want to eat in dark places where you can’t see the food.”
MKGS is located in the Indiatown part of Artesia, which provides the restaurant with a steady base of customers. An article in the L.A. Times introduced readers to the place, and now the client mix is at least 50% non-Indian. The mayor of Artesia, Tony Lima, is a fan.
Shah did toy with the idea of a mobile unit, but gave it up because of the regulations involved. “I even wanted our current set up to include a pani-puriwalla and paanwalla at the door, but it was too difficult to get permission from the health department.”
Shah is mightily proud of the quality of his offerings. “When westerners think of Indian food, it’s just naan and curry. I offer genuine Marathi food, the kind you can rarely get anywhere else.” One specific yogurt-based drink called piyush is a big hit. “I challenge anyone to a taste test with the (ubiquitous) mango lassi,” he dares.
MKGS is still a mom and pop operation, though success has created opportunities for expansion. But the dream remains the same—popularizing Indian street food. “I’m very patriotic,” explains Shah. “I want people to understand that Indian street offerings are not oily, junk food.” The restaurant does booming business catering to parties and events. “This is my effort to change the perceptions of and trends in Indian food in the United States,” says Shah. “Indian food here is going through an evolution.
Why the complicated name? “It’s the food that counts,” insists Shah. “I could have named it Amitabh Bachchan or Michael Jackson and people would still come if the food was good.”
It’s a Wrap!
As chaat becomes popular in the United States, entrepreneurs are trying out new methods to deliver the tasty product. One such attempt is KaatiFresh, which emulates the successful Chipotle and Baja Fresh fast food business model and ambience. The centerpiece of the restaurant is the kaati roll, where a thin Indian bread called the roomali roti is wrapped around a variety of stuffings, layered with the option of a single egg, double egg or egg white, topped with picked onions, green chili peppers, cilantro, daikon and mint chutney. Originating perhaps during Mughal times, and made popular in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, the layered roll is found both in roadside kiosks and fancy restaurants.
KaatiFresh capitalizes on the amazing diversity of Indian street food, which is more nutritious than it is given credit for. “Our goal was to bring a new taste and flavor to the Bay Area,” says Pammy Kapoor, the executive chef and founder of the company. More information can be found at http://kaatifresh.com.