The Indian Chipotle Exists Right Now in San Francisco at Tava

That’s what Tava Indian Kitchen feels like. The owners: three young guys who escaped from careers in finance. They insist Chipotle isn’t behind their vision of the Indian burrito—specifically the Burroti, wrapped not in a tortilla, but in a huge roti, cooked to order on an industrial heat-transfer press. But all entrepreneurs in the fast-casual arena these days have Chipotle’s model tattooed onto their psyches, if not etched onto their business plans.

A couple of years ago, Vijay Brihmadesam and Hasnain Zaidi were working in private equity in Atlanta. On a flight somewhere, they brainstormed an idea: get the hell out of finance, and open a chain of fast-casual Indian restaurants. Not restaurants the way all too many non-Indians in America know them, with curries so infused with cream and ghee you want to lay down afterward. Places where the food is lighter, like the dishes Indians and Pakistanis eat at home. “If I ate at an Indian restaurant every day I’d weigh 300 pounds,” says Brihmadesam, who looks to be about 140, 150 tops.

Brihmadesam and Zaidi asked a third buddy, Jason Pate, to come in with them; they were all in their mid-20s, and met at Duke University. The first Tava Indian Kitchen opened a year ago in Palo Alto, near Stanford University; the second launched last fall in downtown San Francisco. The Bay Area had the audience: “a large white-collar community that wanted ethnic foods for lunch,” Brihmadesam says.

(In a two-block radius from the SF Tava, you can get a Filipino sisig burrito, a Korean kalbi burrito, a sushi burrito from a wildly popular place called Sushirrito, or a classic Mission-style burrito, either from a small mom-and-pop or a Chipotle perpetually packed with kids from a nearby art school.)

The surprise has been how the community has taken to the burroti. Brihmadesam figures about 30 percent of Tava’s demographic is Indian. He credits the care they take with the ingredients. Not just the made-to-order rotis, but the meat options, chicken and lamb (finding lamb that’s both grass-fed and halal: not so easy). Most spices come from Penzeys, and they make fresh mint chutneys, raita, and hot sauce with bhut jolokia, a.k.a. the Ghost Pepper. And the tikka masala is mostly coconut milk and yogurt, enriched with only a little cream. The menu has to respect South Asia's diverse dietary rules: Beef and pork are definitely out, and all baseline sauces need to be vegetarian.

Those glass walls around the burroti line, the ones that look so much like Chipotle’s? Brihmadesam says they’re not some rip-off of the house Steve Ells built. “Talking to people, the thing they said about Indian restaurants is that they never know what they’re ordering—the meats are already mixed up in the sauces, you can’t tell what anything is.” So they made the burroti production line literally transparent.

Call me a fan of the lamb burroti with basmati pilaf and dal. I like the shredded texture of the meat, and it’s roasted with juniper berries that give it an interesting and very subtle flavor. Like most of a burroti’s elements, the lamb is undersalted, but if you load it up, bite by bite, with gobs of spicy mint chutney and raita, you don’t notice as much. And I like the chewy texture of the roti in the places where it wads up in multiple folds.

Brihmadesam says there are plans to open more Tavas but doesn’t want to talk about that right now. They’re focusing on getting the food right. “Adjusting the recipes a little,” Zaidi adds, making some other changes.

Zaidi says, “We’re still so new, there are no sacred cows.” So to speak.

Meanwhile, Tava’s owners are having the Burroti trademarked. If everything goes according to plan, you should expect to be eating one someday, in a university town or upscale food court near you.

Photo captions: 1: A Tava Burroti with chicken, brown rice, and tikka masala sauce. 2-4: Roti wraps are cooked to order in a two-step process on heat-transfer presses. 5-6: The roti is piled with ingredients and rolled, burrito-style. 7: House-made hot sauce with Ghost Pepper (left), and spicy mint chutney. 8: Indian Maaza juices in Tava’s drinks case. 9: Owners Hasnain Zaidi (left) and Vijay Brihmadesam.

Photos by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com

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