I can’t begin a food post without sharing an experience from a few nights ago. A group of us had dinner at Indus Valley, a reasonably well-regarded desi restaurant at 100th and Broadway in New York. At some point the composer Philip Glass walked in, and one of our group, a big fan, went into a state of beatific darshan that threatened to destabilize our meal. It got worse when Glass and his companion sat at the table next to ours. My fellow diner was finally able to compose himself, give Glass props, and return to getting our eat on.
Suddenly another of my companions let out a piercing yell and pushed back from the table with great speed. Yes, there was a big old cockroach crawling up the tablecloth — not the short dark ones you often see in NYC kitchens, but a tropical-quality beast, two or three inches long (though not the flying kind). A minor tamasha ensued, during which Philip Glass turned to me and said, with an air of wisdom, “Don’t worry, they have very small appetites.”
Cockroaches happen; celebrity sightings happen too. But what was truly shocking was that the
macacas brothers running the restaurant did not comp us even a round of drinks or dessert, let alone a meal, in recognition of the disgusting insect experience. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised us, seeing that they were already trying to seat a couple at a nearby two-top while the cockroach hunt was still on, but come on, what the hell kind of restaurant management is that? So, folks, if you go to Indus Valley at 100th and Broadway, watch out for big-ass cockroaches and don’t expect a discount.
Which brings me to the subject at hand. Perhaps in response to a desi dining landscape that, except in a few fortunate neighborhoods and towns, consists of the same old slop doled out from the same buffets, plus a few “nice” places that look fancy but aren’t necessarily up to snuff in the hygiene department, the idea of desi fast food — cheap, standardized and franchised — becomes a more and more compelling alternative.
Yogi Sood sits in front of his restaurant in the food court at the Burlington Mall talking strategy with his son. The conversation is not about recipes or vendors or price points. Their recipes already are great, their vendors steady, their prices fair.
Rather, this debate is about the speed at which they should conquer the world. Yogi, a 57-year-old retired engineer and the founder of Gourmet India, wants to do it quickly. Now. Yesterday.
“Fifty franchises in five years,” he says.
Vishnal Sood, 24, raises an eyebrow. He is deferential to his father but the eyebrow is ominous.
Yogi interprets: “My son thinks I’m a bit ambitious,” he says. Then he laughs.
The Soods’ company, Gourmet India, has franchises in well-selected, semi-upscale or well-trafficked malls in the Boston area. The idea is to make desi food ubiquitous in mall food courts. I would imagine there are other regional chains starting up in different parts of the country on exactly the same premise.
Still, a national chain? “It’s a big leap,” says Harry Balzer, an expert in the eating habits of Americans. “People’s taste changes very slowly.”
Sood is nonplussed. Indian food will be to the ethnic food market what Chinese food became 20 years ago, he says. He looks around the mall’s food court. Some of the heavy hitters of the franchise restaurant business are his neighbors: Pizzeria Regina, Johnny Rockets, Quiznos. “We’re already among the most popular here,” he says.
The article treads the usual ground (with a punning title too lame to repeat here): how the US market for desi food is different from the UK, etc. Still, the question is there and it’s surely worth a lot of money: what are the chances, and what would it take, to make desi food a ubiquitous option in the malls, airports and train stations of America, like pizza and Chinese?