The C-word — they hear it almost daily from customers. Sahil Rahman and Rahul Vinod, childhood friends-turned-business partners of Washington, D.C.’s fast-casual Indian restaurant Rasa, have accepted that being called the C-word comes with the territory. Still: “Inside,” Vinod says, “we both cringe a little bit every time we hear it.”
That C-word is Chipotle, to which every quick-service restaurant where customers walk down a line and choose a base-protein-sauce is bound to be compared. But Chipotle didn’t receive two-and-a-half stars from The Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema. Rasa did.
A pop fly away from Nationals Park in the city’s Navy Yard neighborhood, Rasa is the ambitious product of two Indian Americans raised in their family’s restaurant trade. Rahman and Vinod’s fathers are partners in two D.C.-area Indian restaurants, and growing up, the younger pair found themselves ambassadors of the cuisine to their non-Indian classmates, many of whom had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” just to try the food. After college, Rahman and Vinod pursued careers in the world of finance. But something about evangelizing the cooking of their Indian-American upbringing intrigued them both. So they left their lucrative jobs, dreamed up the idea, secured investor money, and with the help of their fathers’ cooking and business know-how, opened the doors to Rasa in December 2017.
The comparisons to Chipotle may carry a negative connotation to Vinod and Rahman, but it’s the quickest way to grasp Rasa’s concept. You line up, point to the proteins, bases, and sauces behind the glass counter, and DIY your own bowl (or choose one of the six assembled bowls from the menu). The restaurant pulls in flavors from all kinds of menus under the “Indian” banner, from the tropical touches of Keralite cuisine (Vinod’s family is from the Southern coastal state of Kerala) to Northern Indian dishes like chicken tikka, and adds French fine-dining techniques, serving it all through the prism of Rahman and Vinod’s American upbringing.
Most everything is cooked from scratch each morning, meats are sourced from local farmers, garam masala is ground and mixed in-house. It all comes together in cooking that’s sophisticated and playful (as seen in bowls named “Tikka Chance On Me” and “Aloo Need Is Love”), and that sense of whimsy comes through in the restaurant space: It’s eye-poppingly polychromatic, with swinging pod chairs, modernist artwork, and a color scheme with the saturation level dialed up to 100.
What’s perhaps most compelling about the Rasa story is how Rahman and Vinod mirrored what their fathers pursued together 27 years ago — two Indian-Americans wanting to share their beloved food to the masses, wanting to correct misconceptions, and deciding to get into business together. Now, that relationship goes from fathers to sons and back. The younger Rahman and Vinod have helped infuse energy into their fathers’ restaurants, Indique and Bombay Bistro, helping revamp the menu, introducing a craft cocktail program and updating decor. In turn, K.N. Vinod and Surfy Rahman have passed on the hard-earned wisdom and lessons learned from a career in hospitality.
“It’s given us a whole new appreciation of our dads,” Rahman says. “It’s been special to connect with them.”
Sahil Rahman and Rahul Vinod are the CEOs of Rasa in Washington, DC.
Kevin Pang is editor-in-chief of The Takeout and director of For Grace on Netflix.