For years, Indian food in Los Angeles meant just a few main dishes: chicken tikka masala, samosas, and a generic curry with a protein of choice. But in recent years, Chirag Shah — CEO of Tulsi Indian Eatery, which has three locations in Los Angeles and one in Riverside — has seen a shift. Noticing an uptick in both diner interest and restaurant growth, Shah thinks Indian food is ready to take center stage across America, but especially in LA.
Named after the holy basil plant in Hindu culture, Tulsi is a fast-casual restaurant dedicated to providing regional Indian fare to Southern Californians. While the majority of Indian restaurants in the U.S. specialize in either North Indian or South Indian cuisines — generally without discernment between the states within each region — Tulsi aims to acknowledge India’s deep diversity by providing cultural specificity in its dishes. The restaurant’s extensive menu, featuring a wide range of specialties, touches multiple corners of the vast country. While modern, fast-casual Indian restaurants are fairly commonplace, Tulsi’s one-stop shop for hyper-regionalized fare pushes LA’s Indian food scene a step further.
Tulsi’s menu pulls from several of India’s 28 states and focuses on three of the country’s main regions (South, Western, and North), with the potential to expand to more areas and greater depth in the future. South Indian menu items include dosas, idli, vada, uttapam, and bisi bele bath, while offerings from the country’s western region consist of Mumbai street foods and traditional Gujarati staples, like khandvi and undhiyu. From the North Indian canon are staples like chole bhature and sarson ka saag.
“One of the things that I noticed in my experience before opening Tulsi was that you go to a northern or southern or Gujarati restaurant and one person — like somebody’s cousin — is making everything. And it doesn’t taste right,” says Shah. While it’s not uncommon to have multiple regions represented on a single menu, Tulsi is able to execute better than most because its chefs specialize in northern, southern, or western fare and oversee dish creation from their specific area of expertise.
A fourth section of Tulsi’s menu features cross-cultural dishes with elements from either various parts of India or a mashup of Indian dishes with other cuisines. Here, loaded makhani fries, Indian Mexican paneer tikka tacos, Indian Chinese chile paneer, and chile-garlic fried rice take center stage.
The menu at Tulsi also highlights thali-style dining, allowing customers to sample a variety of dishes and flavors, all served on round metal plates. With its smaller individual portions, thalis are akin to a tasting menu. But while tasting menus tend to be expensive, a thali offers a similar experience at a more accessible price point. The Gujarati thali includes some of the best Gujarati cooking on the West Coast, with dishes like undhiyu, a slightly sweet dal, methi thepla, sev khamani, and more. A single thali is portioned large enough to feed two to three people.
To deliver on such an expansive menu, Tulsi’s culinary team runs a commissary kitchen in addition to the four physical stores, which creates a level of standardization in taste and quality of food across all locations, and operational ease for staffers. Regional chefs lead roughly 60 to 70 percent of the cooking in the commissary, says Antonio Kanickaraj, Tulsi’s director of operations. So while each restaurant serves fresh dosa, naan, and curries, the different batters, doughs, and bases are made in the commissary kitchen.
Tulsi is also dedicated to appealing to as many diners as possible by pricing the food affordably (with nearly all dishes under $10) and making both diners who are less familiar with the cuisine and those who may have grown up with similar foods feel equally welcome. To that end, the restaurant is aunty- and uncle-friendly; on any given night, find Indian families dining together around a larger table, while non-Indian diners trickle in and out.
“I’ve been thinking about this restaurant for about 20 years in the back of my head,” says Shah. “When we started this concept, we did [research and development] for a year.” Part of the process involved visiting Indian cultural hubs like Edison, New Jersey, and Artesia in southeast Los Angeles. (The latter has been Angelenos’ best shot at finding regional Indian specialties for the past decade.) Through the process, Shah and his team found that while there was ample demand for regional Indian food, there wasn’t adequate access to these kinds of specialties outside clusters of immigrant communities. “I thought to myself, there’s an opportunity here to make an impact, to have Indian food and Indian culture be a part of the mainstream,” says Shah. “It’s time for Indian food to take prime time.”
Shah came to the U.S. in 1982 from Gujarat, India, at the age of 12 and settled in Massachusetts. He began working in restaurants at age 13 as a dishwasher and continued in the food industry throughout high school, college, and law school. As Shah went on to have a decades-long career in employment labor law, even opening his own practice in Downtown LA, he kept thinking about Indian food and its future in America.
“Indian food hasn’t taken its place in American culture,” he says. “And that seemed to trouble me because it’s a manifestation of our culture, our thinking, and our history.” Shah feels strongly that Indian food deserves to have greater popularity and that more of its regional cuisines need to be visible — and accessible — to a wider audience. “There’s just so much more to Indian food than chicken tikka and samosas,” Shah says. “I don’t even know how much there is.”
At present, Tulsi’s menu only scratches the surface of the range of Indian cuisine. From north to south and east to west, each state is home to communities that speak different languages, practice different faiths and customs, and have varying culinary preferences — from spice levels to flavor profiles and even choices in grain. Food traditions vary from one state to the next and within each state, too.
While Shah has seen the number of Indian restaurants in the U.S. grow over the past 40 years, he says that the variety of dishes hasn’t expanded much to reflect the country’s plethora of cuisines. In recent years, though, Angelenos have had access to more Indian restaurants than ever before, many serving menus that go beyond the expected to show differences in northern and southern cooking, the range of Mumbai street foods, and the occasional green chutney pizza. “Where I live in the San Fernando Valley, there’s an Indian restaurant on every block. It’s amazing,” says Shah. “Indian food is everywhere now.”
And this shift is happening across the country. This year, chef Meherwan Irani won the 2022 James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant for his Indian street food concept Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, while chef Chintan Pandya took home the 2022 James Beard Award for best chef in New York state for the “unapologetically Indian” dishes served at Dhamaka. Access to truly delicious, highly regionalized, and innovative Indian food is becoming more readily available across the country at large. The trend is spreading to LA as well, with the recent openings of Pijja Palace in Silver Lake and Cali Chilli in Long Beach, among others.
Tulsi wants to continue paving the way. Shah is leading the growing chain along with chief marketing officer Amjadkhan “AP” Pathan, who handles the brand’s marketing; and Kanickaraj, the director of operations and a classically trained chef specializing in Mughlai as well as South Indian, North Indian, and Thai cuisines. After opening the first location in Downtown LA in September 2020, taking over chef Josef Centeno’s Bäco Mercat, the team expanded to a second location in Northridge in July 2021. This past September they opened a third outlet in Westwood before expanding to Riverside in October with a fourth location on Indiana Avenue.
“We call ourselves the Amar Akbar Anthony executive team,” says Shah, referring to the 1977 Bollywood movie Amar Akbar Anthony about three brothers who are separated at birth and raised by families of three different faiths. It’s a name that’s fitting for multiple reasons; not only are the members of the executive team from three different backgrounds (with regard to their origins, faiths, and professional experiences), but Tulsi’s very ethos is a celebration of that diversity, progress, and equity.
With a shared goal of bringing accessible and affordable regional Indian cuisine to LA and beyond, the Tulsi team recognizes where their culinary legacy stems from — a long line of South Asian restaurant owners serving food to support their families. “We stand on their backs,” says Shah. “Without them, we wouldn’t have Tulsi, we wouldn’t have Pijja Palace, we wouldn’t have any of this stuff. I’m very grateful for them, they’ve done an amazing job, but I think it’s time to take it to the next level.”