A family affair: Taste of India settles down on the Mall

Taste of India’s Kamal Khatri wants guests to feel like family when they walk down the spiral staircase into the restaurant’s Downtown Mall location. Photo: Martyn Kyle Taste of India’s Kamal Khatri wants guests to feel like family when they walk down the spiral staircase into the restaurant’s Downtown Mall location. Photo: Martyn Kyle

August 26, 2013 was a momentous day for Taste of India’s manager Kamal Khatri. Not only did the Nepalese-born restaurateur open the Downtown Mall restaurant on that day with his uncle, Ashok Kunver, but halfway around the world his wife gave birth to their first son. Khatri has yet to meet his new baby, busy as he is running the third restaurant in the family’s crown, but he tries to stay focused on making the restaurant a success before his wife and son’s arrival from Nepal in February.

“It’s very hard,” said Khatri. “But I keep telling myself I am doing it for them, to make the business good for my family.”

And business has been pretty good for the family. Khatri and his uncle, aunt, mother, father, and brother have three restaurants: one in Harrisonburg, another in Staunton, and now the Charlottesville location. His mom, Jaya, and aunt, Sita, run the Harrisonburg restaurant, and his dad, Rudra, and brother, Nishan, run the one Staunton, while his uncle, who first opened an Indian restaurant in Connecticut decades ago before moving down to Harrisonburg, oversees them all. Khatri said it took two years to find the Charlottesville space, in the former Henry’s Restaurant below Vita Nova Pizza, and so far it has been a wonderful experience for them.

“A while ago I got a call from the visitor’s bureau telling me that a thousand people would be arriving by train to visit the Mall,” he said. “But what was really amazing was that I got another call letting me know the train was late, and that I should plan on keeping my restaurant open. That has never happened before.”

And already, Khatri said they have established a loyal lunch crowd, with people coming in repeatedly to enjoy their $8.95 buffet.

“We had 100 people for lunch the other day,” he said. “Because of lunch, we are surviving.”

Still, Khatri said it’s been a challenge to get the public to notice the restaurant, given its below street-level location. That’s why he believes it’s important to treat people well when they do find their way into the restaurant.

“When people come inside they should feel welcome, like family,” he said. “And when they leave they should feel like they didn’t waste their time or their money.”

As for the food, well, chef Raj Ghale uses the same family recipes that Khatri’s uncle brought to America decades ago. Most of the dishes hail from from Northern India, where his uncle moved to from Nepal when he was a young man. As Khatri pointed out, the foods in Nepal and India are similar in style and flavor, and dishes like Dal Makhani—a mixture of lentils and kidney beans flavored with ginger and cilantro—and Saag Paneer—a combination of cheese and spinach—typify both regions. And, of course, there’s the popular Chicken Tikka Masala, with chunks of tender chicken in a colorful, flavorful sauce of tomatoes and cream, laced with ginger and garlic, over a bed of saffron basmati rice.

For those willing to turn up the heat—and they mean really turn it up—Khatri said their home-made Indian hot sauce is not for the timid. He and his family have it for dinner almost every day, but he said most Americans can’t take that kind of heat. But there are exceptions.

“One customer I had in Staunton liked things very hot,” said Khatri, laughing, “and he came in the kitchen and challenged us. The next day he came in and said, ‘Oh, man, you really almost killed me!’”

But don’t worry. Khatri said they can adjust the level of spiciness in most dishes, from very hot to very mild, and everything in between.

To cool down, Taste of India offers a selection of Indian beers, including 22-ounce Taj Mahal and Flying Horse. But perhaps the best way to soothe the burn is with a Mango Lassi, a thick, creamy kind of shake made with mangos and yogurt. They also have an extensive wine list.

Khatri, who drives from his home in Harrisonburg to the Downtown Mall every day, looks tired but happy after a long lunch shift. He’s clearly determined to make sure you feel welcome when you walk down that spiral staircase and step inside, building as he is his life in America while he waits for his wife and child to arrive.

“I try not to think about it,” he said about not having yet seen his new-born son. “And just stay focused on building this business.”—Dave McNair