Indian Street Food Hits Bay Area

Indian Street Food Hits Bay Area

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 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. 

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.