“Indian cuisine has a depth,” says chef Manjunath Mural of Long Beach’s newly opened Cali Chilli. “It has history, traditions, ingredients, and techniques — but it is still common to define it as ‘niche.’ It’s often kept to the genre of ‘family restaurant’ in many parts of the world, where it’s not real Indian food if it isn’t cheap and doesn’t have some type of chicken tikka on the menu.”
Mural should know. The globetrotting chef has spent the past decade-plus opening Indian restaurants around the world, mostly with a modernist bent. In 2015, his Singapore restaurant the Song of India earned it first of several consecutive Michelin stars, and he has since gone on to open projects in Brisbane, Australia; Jakarta, Indonesia; and beyond. Now he’s landed in Long Beach, California for his first Stateside partnership, Cali Chilli, a purposefully “unauthentic” restaurant that blends the flavors of India, Mexico, Italy, and Los Angeles.
For this latest endeavor, Mural has teamed up with area restaurateur and chef Sanjeev Kapoor, who also operates a handful of worldwide restaurants in addition to Tustin’s Yellow Chilli. Kapoor felt that Long Beach lacked in Indian representation (both in its residents and its food), with a singular, fast-casual space and a couple of formal restaurants and steam table lunch buffets serving the hundreds of thousands of area residents. Artesia, the heart of LA’s Indian restaurant scene is not far away, but for Long Beach locals, Kapoor felt that there was room for more growth, particularly a restaurant that would speak to the flexibility of Indian food’s wide-reaching flavors.
Together the pair opened Cali Chilli in late May in Lakewood Village, crafting the space to be a dinnertime destination — think brass-trimmed glass bar shelves, color-changing LED lights beneath the barstool seats, and tall, industrial ceilings — that didn’t take itself too seriously. The restaurant’s unique menu is meant to play on the American tendency to insist that foods from other countries must be served “authentically,” loosely defined as strict adherence to tradition or, more often, cultural tropes.
Here, Mural plays with chicken tikka by adding parmesan and white truffle oil, eschewing heavy chili pepper and ginger in favor of warm Italian flavors. Elsewhere the chef plays on lasagna by stuffing slivers of eggplant — in lieu of pasta —between layers of paneer, drizzling butter masala across the top to create a complex dish that is both filling and playful in its inspiration.
This being greater Los Angeles, Cali Chilli also offers nachos and quesadillas, American comfort foods, flatbreads, and Korean spins across dinner and brunch. The oft-traveling Mural says that while the restaurant is still finding its footing and its audience, he expects to update the menu every six months or so. More than anything, Mural says that he’s eager with each new update to push the boundaries that he feels have often been imposed by invisible authorities on non-European restaurants in America — particularly the guardrails and limiters around things like price, accessibility, and experimentation
“The idea behind Cali Chilli is simple,” says Mural. “It’s to bring Michelin-grade comfort food to Los Angeles. And here in Southern California it is a step away from the stereotypical, in terms of Indian cuisine.”
General manager Vijay Rajput echoes Mural’s sentiment. Hailing from the Midwest as a hospitality worker, Rajput notes that the vast amount of Americans experiencing Indian food are experiencing it from many of the first generation Indian families that came here. That can often mean (particularly in smaller cities and communities) menus that have not dramatically changed in years, as operators try to speak to the largest viable audience of customers possible.
Southern California is lucky in that regard. Silver Lake’s newish Pijja Palace is a bubbling cauldron of culinary mischief that is pulling in big crowds nightly, while the Mahendro clan of Badmaash fame continues to work their own unique food magic in Downtown and on Fairfax. Restaurants like IndiMex Eats, Bombay Frankie, and Santa Monica’s Tumbi have been pushing the cuisine in exciting new directions for years, while in Orange County, the Fullerton destination Khan Saab has earned its own Michelin recognition. Still, there is plenty of room to grow, particularly in Long Beach.
“This work is hard but worth it,” says Rajput, “not just for the restaurant but in the overall sense of pride for the Indian community. It’s why we’re running straight out the gates: Menu changes biannually, brunch already up and running despite the foot traffic, open every day of the week except Monday. We’re here to lift hearts and open stomachs.”
The new Cali Chilli is open Tuesday through Friday, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday and a Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at 4111 N. Viking Way in Long Beach.