Indian food in the United States has long been dominated by the first generation of South Asian immigrants opening what New York University food studies associate professor Krishnendu Ray calls "curry houses" — the common cheap buffets where the food often becomes formulaic, with few kinds of sauces and strong one-dimensional flavors. Think saag paneer, naan, and pictures of the Taj Mahal plastered everywhere. Out of the approximately 350 Indian restaurants in New York City, for example, Ray estimates that 320 are the typical curry house format, while 10 to 15 are on the other extreme: upscale, expensive Indian restaurants like Tamarind and the Michelin-starred Junoon.
"At its very core, we wanted to just change the way people thought about Indian food in America."
But currently, the fast-casual space is booming. There's Chipotle and Qdoba for Tex-Mex, Shake Shack for burgers and fries, and Sweetgreen and Tender Greens for fancy salads. And now, a new crop of Indian fast-casual restaurants is growing.
These Indian-inspired fast-casual spots are open coast to coast: from Saffron in Los Angeles to Indikitch and the Kati Roll Company in New York to Taja Indian in Denver and Houston. They're presenting themselves in a way that goes against Indian-restaurant stereotypes: with bright spaces, modern branding, and menus with dishes meant to be broadly appealing to the American fast-food customer. With menu items like the yogi salad at San Francisco's Kasa Indian Eatery and the dosa waffle at New York's Inday, these restaurants trying to shake up Indian cuisine in America. So is America now primed, finally, for the Indian fast-casual explosion?
Attempting to make certain flavors more commonplace in the fast-casual space is not new. ShopHouse Kitchen, a growing chain that is literally the Chipotle of Southeast Asian food, debuted in 2011, and has learned some lessons while scaling. ShopHouse uses the same build-it-yourself concept as its Tex-Mex sister: The restaurant offers rice, noodle, or salad bowls (it's now also testing roti options in select locations) with layers of protein, vegetable, sauce, and topping options. ShopHouse Kitchen has since expanded to 14 additional locations across the DC/Maryland, Los Angeles, and Chicago markets.
With a lot of Thai influences, the ShopHouse menu includes flavors like lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and Thai basil. According to co-founder and brand director Tim Wildin, bridging the gap between consumers and new-to-them ingredients happens by communicating "the top notes of flavors in various things that might be foreign to people," referring to communication in branding, marketing, and wording on menus. Spice levels must also be clearly conveyed, Wildin explained, because that can be a barrier to entry for some people.
"Everyone knows what a burrito is, but not everyone knows what a kati roll or a thali is."
To lower those barriers, Indian fast-casual startups are borrowing from American fast-food influences. Back in 2009, the Curry Up Now chainlet started as a single food truck in Northern California, serving items like the tikka masala burrito. "It's not fusion — we hate that word," said co-founder Akash Kapoor, who is positioning Curry Up Now as a "fine casual" concept. The company has since grown to five trucks and four physical restaurants around the San Francisco Bay Area.
About half of Curry Up Now's menu offers Indian twists on burritos, fries, quesadillas, and tacos, while the other half tries to stay more traditional with Indian street food and classic dishes. "The burrito is 100 percent Indian, but by calling it a burrito and offering it as a burrito, we've made the food accessible to all," Kapoor said. "Everyone knows what a burrito is, but not everyone knows what a kati roll or a thali is."
Los Angeles gastropub Badmaash takes a similar approach with items like chicken tikka poutine and a spiced lamb burger. "When it really comes down to it, people just want to eat good food," said Badmaash co-founder Nakul Mahendro, talking about how to make flavors more approachable to a wider audience. "I think a poutine and a burger would scare away no one."
Though it's not fast-casual, Badmaash — named after a term meaning "badass" in South Asia — is similarly branding itself as going against the grain, marketing social media hashtags like #WeAreNotAnIndianRestaurant and #FuckYourFavoriteIndianRestaurant. "Indian food is stuck in the ‘80s, the way Chinese food was in the ‘90s," Mahendro said. "At its very core, we wanted to just change the way people thought about Indian food in America. That's a really big uphill battle."
At Curry Up Now, Kapoor is also experimenting with items like "tikka tikka hummus" and "Tau, the Dude," a giant samosa filled with biryani and an egg. Curry Up Now is even expanding its menu to offer craft cocktails: Its Mortar and Pestle bar shakes up a typical old fashioned with garam masala syrup.
"The idea was to take the food that I grew up with and do a simplified version of that in an affordable, fast, colorful setting."
Once a fast-casual concept clicks, there are challenges when it comes to super-sizing it to Chipotle-like proportions. California-based Tava Indian Kitchen started in Palo Alto and San Francisco with a familiar-sounding concept: build your own "burrotis" and bowls with Indian ingredients. But after Tava hired a new executive from Smashburger and raised $4.5 million in equity financing to scale, the company worked with a restaurant design firm, an ad agency group, and culinary talent to shift its look and feel, as well as update its food items. Now known as Tava Kitchen, it literally took the "Indian" out of its name to broaden its appeal.
"We really have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the right product offering is, what the right brand positioning is, and how to put together a restaurant concept that's really exciting and motivating for customers out there," Tava Kitchen CEO Jeremy Morgan, formerly of Smashburger, said.
Tava now intentionally brands itself as "South Asian" food — expanding its menu beyond Indian influences. It's incorporated beef and shrimp into main dishes, and now offers sides like South Asian mac and cheese (with Indian spices in the panko crumbs) and a crunchy kale and quinoa salad that has a masala vinaigrette. In addition to a third location in Alameda, California, Tava plans to expand out of state into the Denver area soon, and is also looking at franchising options.
While Morgan says Tava's rebranding didn't want to deter Indian food loyalists, it aimed to open doors to customers who may have been intimidated by South Asian food in the past. But any intimidation is "less about the food itself," Morgan said, "it's more about perception than it is reality, when it comes down to it."
The fear factor is all too real with Indian food. "The word 'curry' is still a difficult word for people because they automatically associate that with heat [spice]," Food Network's Sequeira said. Commonly misunderstood in the western world, curry is just a generic term for a style of dish — like the term "pasta" might be used in multiple contexts. And typical Indian food eaten at home usually departs from what's familiar on curry house steam tables — it likely doesn't even have curry powder and incorporates very little naan, said Anupy Singla, a cookbook author and co-founder of Chicago-based Indian food company Indian As Apple Pie.
Some fast-casual entrepreneurs, like Singla, are blending their American perspective with the Indian dishes they grew up eating at home. In Colorado, Biju Thomas — whose restaurant Biju's Little Curry Shop opened in Denver a year and a half ago — offers South Indian-based food. "The idea was to take the food that I grew up with and do a simplified version of that in an affordable, clean, really friendly, fast, colorful setting," Thomas said.
Thomas's dishes feature ingredients reminiscent of the Kerala region in South India: fresh coconut, ginger, garlic, and curry leaves. Bowls might include a base of basmati rice with spiced lentils, topped with sautéed vegetables and meats, all customized to the diner's liking, just like the bowls at Chipotle. Sometimes people come into his restaurants surprised that this is "real" Indian food, Thomas said — especially with beef on the menu.
Thomas's plan to bring South Indian flavors to the masses is getting attention. Whole Foods gave Thomas the go-ahead to open a chef-driven concept with his regional style of Indian cuisine inside one of its Boulder stores — something Whole Foods now wants to expand nationally. In addition to two Denver locations, Thomas is also looking to expand Biju's Little Curry Shop locations in Colorado, California, Washington state, and Texas.
In recent years, NYU Indian food scholar Ray says he has been approached by at least a dozen "very bullish" food entrepreneurs about discussing their Indian fast-casual concepts. They're likely inspired by those already forging ahead in the space.
These days, Curry Up Now has a central commercial kitchen to make most of its sauces and chutneys for its various locations, but co-founder Kapoor says no preservatives or additives are added to these big batches, made several times a week. With food prep scaled up to his liking, Kapoor is looking at national expansion, either through licensing, franchising, or corporate stores. The goal? About 300 to 500 physical locations around the country, with a couple food trucks in each major city, too.
"I’m excited for us to move to the next level, where we’re really being creative with what we’re feeding people."
Biju's Little Curry Shop has a central kitchen to prepare chutneys and to cook vindaloo, coconut coriander, and red onion masala curry bases each morning. Thomas's recipes are kept simple for restaurant cooks: At each location, meats are cooked and then blended in with each of those bases, and finishing items like chiles, chopped herbs, and some spices are added. "I needed to be able to do something that we could open anywhere in the country and get reasonably qualified staff and train them well," Thomas said.
While many fast-casual entrepreneurs have their operations set, Ray advises operators that Indian flavors alone aren't going to win over Americans' hearts. To fight in the competitive fast-casual marketplace, he believes these emerging Indian chains need to make a name for themselves with their quality and sustainability. That means a genuine focus on things like food waste, organic and local vegetables, non-GMO ingredients, and transparency about where all their meat comes from. "It has to be front-loaded. It has to be aggressive. It has to be uncompromising," Ray said. "And they have to convey that [to customers]."
Luckily, experts like Food Network's Sequeira believe that Indian food is lends itself to these trends: The fact that it's vegetable-forward, healthy, and customizable in a fast-casual space. "I think if we can push that aspect of Indian food, then people can get into it," Sequeira said.
But moving forward, Indian fast-casual needs more culinary innovation, said Sequeira, who notes she's ready to see more chefs trailblazing beyond just wrapping up Indian food in a burrito. "I'm excited for us to move to the next level," she said, "where we're really experimenting and being creative with what we're feeding people."
Vignesh Ramachandran is a Palo Alto, California-based freelance journalist who is experimenting with Indian cooking after growing up in a foodie family.
Editor: Erin DeJesus