Searching for Bombay-style cuisine, a hungry writer explores L.A.’s Indian community and its restaurants and finds what she’s looking for in tortilla form.
I recently celebrated my one-year anniversary with Los Angeles. I moved here from New Jersey at the end of January 2018, and the year I spent in the city allowed me to thaw from the Northeast winter and build a new life for myself. On the day of the anniversary, I celebrated by getting a commemorative tattoo, spending time with the people I now called home and eating my favorite food: an Indian Mexican burrito.
Three months into my time in Los Angeles, a coworker told me to visit the 23rd Street Café, a restaurant near USC that specializes in Mexican and Indian fusion food. He’d overheard me talking about how as an Indian American, I was struggling to find proper Indian food. He told me everything he’d ordered from the cafe was delicious, but I was skeptical. He wasn’t exactly an expert on Indian food — he kept referring to “chicken tikka masala” as “chicken tiki masala.”
I decided to stop by anyway.
When I walked in, there were mostly Indian USC students sitting alone with their laptops like they’d been parked there for hours. I ordered a paneer tikka masala breakfast burrito, a vegetarian alternative to the chicken tikka burrito.
For an Indian American who’d been in L.A. just a few months, this burrito felt like a welcome sign.
My first bite was a revelation. It was the perfect medley of spicy, saucy, gooey and warm textures. Could it be I had met myself in food form? For an Indian American who’d been in L.A. just a few months, this burrito felt like a welcome sign.
The cafe’s burrito has a soft tortilla stuffed with crispy hash browns, gooey cheddar cheese and soft scrambled eggs — all glued together by a traditional North Indian tomato gravy seasoned with ginger, garlic, cardamom and pepper. The burrito doesn’t come with chutneys but traditional salsas in plastic containers, and there is likely a bottle of Tapatio on your table. Rather than substituting a traditional flour tortilla for a more Indian paratha or roti, the chefs stick to the basics. The result is a burrito that is debilitating with regard to its size and it’s not something you can easily finish in one sitting.
Burrito as a Verb
The next day I thanked my coworker profusely and told anyone willing to listen about the newfound love of my life — the paneer tikka masala breakfast burrito. Jonathan Gold said, “Taco should be a verb.” Perhaps the same can be said of the burrito?
I wanted more.
My coworker also recommended IndiMex Eats in Hollywood, which serves a similar blend of Mexican and Indian cuisines. It’s much smaller than the 23rd Street Café, with Bollywood film posters, paintings and prints lining the wall.
After multiple visits to the Cahuenga Boulevard location, I learned to actually skip the burrito, which is filled with hard and chunky lentils, and instead order the masala fries: french fries slathered in a rich red gravy, like the kind that would coat cubes of paneer or chicken in a classic tikka masala curry.
The reason I found the burrito at the 23rd Street Café to be so superior to the one at IndiMex is that the former is slightly reminiscent of two Indian street foods: the Frankie and the Kati rolls. Both rolls are comprised of a paneer, vegetable, egg or meat filling with onions and chutneys, wrapped up in a paratha flatbread. The 23rd Street Café takes that filling, adds eggs and hash browns to the mix, and wraps it all up in a flour tortilla.
Jonathan Gold said, “Taco should be a verb.” Perhaps the same came be said of the burrito?
Indian street foods like the Frankie and Kati rolls are difficult to find in L.A., at least in their traditional form. But the Bombay Frankie Company, an eatery inside a West L.A. gas station on Santa Monica Boulevard, makes a decent attempt at bringing street foods from the west coast of India to the west coast of the U.S.
Their menu offers for more customization than you would find in India — a regular or garlic naan base can easily be swapped for a roti or paratha, and there are several filling options as well, including fish, chicken tikka, channa masala and aloo gobhi. While traditionally a Frankie is made with a paratha, the menu at the BFC suggests selecting a garlic naan for the roll.
A few weeks after my anniversary, I ordered a garlic naan shahi paneer Frankie: cubed paneer in creamy tomato gravy, chunks of cucumber and red onion. The gravy was delicious and expertly spiced with cardamom and tangy lemon juice. The side of raita that came with my Frankie, along with the pieces of cucumber inside balanced out the heavier flavors and textures.
The only issue? It wasn’t really a Frankie. Anyone who’s been to Bombay, or Mumbai as it is more commonly known, understands a Frankie is made with a paratha, usually made out of refined flour, and filled with a meat or veggie option — maybe chicken or paneer — with red onion and plenty of chutney. Instead, it was more like a burrito doused in shahi paneer gravy.
I left still hungry for the Frankies I’ve ordered a short walk from my grandparents’ flat in Mumbai.
Indians in L.A.
It’s likely that options for proper Frankies and Kati rolls are limited in L.A. because the Indian American population within the city itself is relatively sparse. According to 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are an estimated 104,042 Indian Americans in L.A. County, a rough 1 percent of the total population. This number has gone up since 2010 when under 80,000 Indian Americans made up only 0.8 percent of the population.
Sunil Agarwal, the president of the India Association of Los Angeles (IALA), has been living in the L.A. region since 2001, about two years after the conception of the IALA. Agarwal has yet to try the food at IndiMex or the 23rd Street Café, but has tried an Indian burrito, filled with grilled paneer or rice, garbanzo beans, and vegetables. “They taste really good,” he said.
According to Agarwal, the Indian population in and around L.A. is concentrated in Artesia, the San Fernando Valley and the Simi Valley area.
“[The Simi] Valley area has more than seven Hindu temples, five Gurdwaras, and more than 60,000 Indians,” he says. “Business is very well established and you can find at least two dozen very good Indian restaurants in the Valley area.”
Agarwal immigrated to the U.S. on an H-1B visa, like my own father, as demand for “skilled labor,” as Agarwal says, increased after the 1960s. As Vijay Prashad writes in the book “Karma of Brown Folk”:
“Between 1966 and 1977, of the Indian Americans who migrated to the United States, 83 percent entered under the occupational category of professional and technical workers (roughly 20,000 scientists with Ph.D.s, 40,000 engineers and 25,000 doctors).”
These numbers have declined since the 1980s. As more skilled laborers immigrated they built more Indian grocery stores and temples, allowing cultural communities to form around them. As we formed our communities, we made our foods — among them items like the Indian Mexican burrito.
A Taste of Home
When my parents, brother and grandmother visited me in Los Angeles, I took them to the 23rd Street Café. I ordered paneer tikka masala burritos and quesadillas for the table. (It’s worth mentioning if you think the burrito is good, trust that the quesadilla is somehow even better.)
We ordered a separate serving of daal and rice for my grandmother, as she needed to eat something familiar and gentle to her stomach. My father went up to the owner, who was taking our order at the register and began talking to him in Hindi. He ordered his own off-menu combination of ingredients — rice and vegetables and so on.
I was caught off guard. This is something I’ve seen my father do in Borivali, our north Bombay suburb. It didn’t fit my experience of eating out in L.A.
There aren’t exactly a lot of Indian girls with pixie cuts ordering the same paneer tikka masala breakfast burrito with extra gravy and avocado at 7:30 p.m. on weekdays.
Growing up, I used to marvel at my parents in the summers we visited India. They became different versions of themselves, talking to rickshaw drivers and sari sellers and paanwalas with a familiarity, authority and comfort I seldom saw them exert in our lives in New Jersey. I’d stand aside, not confident enough in my Hindi to assert myself in the same way. In talking with the owner of the cafe, I heard in my dad’s voice the same familiarity, the same authority, the same comfort.
This owner was a man who barely acknowledged me for months despite the fact that I visited 23rd Street Café frequently, ordered the same thing every time, and stood out. There aren’t exactly a lot of Indian girls with pixie cuts ordering the same paneer tikka masala breakfast burrito with extra gravy and avocado at 7:30 p.m. on weekdays. But when my father went up to him, he didn’t skip a beat. Within a day of being in Los Angeles, my father built the repertoire with my burrito man that I’d been pining after for months.
And for a long moment it didn’t feel like we were near the bustling USC-adjacent West Adams Boulevard with students streaming around the area — but like we were back home in India.