Life on the Streets: Indian Street Food Gets a Permanent Address

The smell of grilling meat and sizzling onions, the calls of vendors enticing you to try their food, the hustle and bustle of a busy market or thoroughfare — street food, in the popular imagination, is a visceral dining experience that comes with a sense of adventure, travel, and romance. The rise of food trucks and the culinary world's hunger for the new and exotic made it a trend, which then evolved into sit-down restaurants serving food that had traditionally come from stalls on the street. A form of eating that seemed like such a novelty five years ago (remember the Korean taco craze?) has officially become a part of the restaurant establishment that it was such a refreshing counterpoint against.

Graduate theses have been devoted to less, and it's easy to imagine the dissertation title from some earnest Food Studies student on the subject (“When Is Street Food Not Street Food?: The Fusion of Third-World Street Cuisine With the Normative Restaurant”). But that philosophical rabbit hole distracts from the food itself. The bites that make up street food aren't so different from tapas, izakaya-style dining, or small plates, and in the right hands, it too can be elevated from a quick and easy snack into a new genre of cuisine.

Juhu Beach Club in Oakland and Curry Up Now's newish brick-and-mortar on Valencia have a lot in common on first glance: They're both serving up hip updates of Indian street food in an irreverent, pop atmosphere, with dish names like Bollywood Baller, Sexy Fries, Naughty Naan, and Holy Cow. But when it comes to the food, the two are very different. Chef Preeti Mistry of Juhu Beach Club is making updated versions of dishes from her Indian upbringing, and has the skill and focus to transform the low-culture fare into a reason to cross the bridge. Curry Up Now is basically food-truck fare with a storefront, more like a fast-casual joint serving Indian flavors in hipster-friendly packages like burritos and quesadillas. Neither restaurant is “street food” in the strictest sense of the term, but in their own way, both earn the right to call their food by that name.

With its hot-pink walls and trippy monkey wallpaper, Juhu Beach Club in Temescal signals from the moment you walk in the door that it's not your typical muted Indian restaurant. It's named after Juhu Beach, a frenetic Mumbai seaside neighborhood famous for its street food. Mistry opened the restaurant in March after running it as a Mission pop-up for a few years; previously, she was a chef at Google and a short-lived contender on Top Chef (season 6, the one in Vegas).

Her goal is not to serve “authentic” street food, but to serve things that she likes and that remind her of her own trips to India. The results are an impressive and ingenious Cali-Indian blend that remakes traditional foods with local ingredients. So Sev puri, a savory snack made with diced potatoes, crispy shards of sev (crispy noodles made from chickpea flour), and chutneys, becomes a summer fruit salad when chopped nectarines and crushed fresh green garbanzo beans are added in the mix. It's not necessarily something you'd find on the real Juhu Beach — but then again, Oakland is a long way from Mumbai.

The focus of the menu, though, is the pavs, slider-style sandwiches. With the Holy Cow, a stupidly rich braised short rib redolent of smoky black cardamom was subbed in for a hamburger patty for a bite that would be overwhelmingly indulgent if it were more than a slider. Even more impressive was the Bollywood Baller, a spicy, gamey lamb meatball soaked in a ginger-laced tomato sauce in a kind of riff on a meatball sandwich, served with a cooling dollop of mint raita. Its mashup of cuisines and established food rules (lamb served with mint, but also meatball served with tomato sauce) shows the ingenuity that Mistry brings to her kitchen.

Even the vegetarian versions were interesting: Sloppy Lil'P was a take on a traditional pav from Goa, and to dismiss it as a “sloppy Joe” is to give short shrift to the complex vegetable curry on the buttery Starter Bakery bun. And I loved the starch-on-starch action in the Vada Pav, which had a fried puff of potato acting as the meat, topped with pickled red onions and ghost pepper chutney.

The menu rewards more visits and exploration; I barely dipped into the curries, though the chicken curry had me already planning a return. A chicken leg had been marinating for 24 hours and you could tell; it slid off the bone and had a pleasant, building spice that was enhanced by lemon rice. I wanted to try every one of the lassis and coolers; the cilantro-cumin lemonade was refreshing and unexpectedly verdant. Mistry might not have made it far on a reality show, but her talent with flavors and ingredients speaks for itself here.

It wasn't my experience at Curry Up Now, the Valencia brick-and-mortar opened seven months ago by the owners of a popular fleet of food trucks and two restaurants on the Peninsula. It offers a culinary mashup that could only be supported by the food world today, remaking the taco truck in the image of India with dishes like tikka masala burritos and paneer quesadillas. The Mission outpost isn't the kind of Indian restaurant where you order a bunch of dishes to share in a group, nor does it focus on one region like Juhu Beach Club. It's less of a serious restaurant than a bit of culinary novelty, and you can't deny that the owners know their audience: young, hip Missionites who are eschewing the traditional flavors of nearby Udapi Palace, Gajalee, Dosa, and Amber Dhara for the type of place that has a divided tip jar asking you to vote for Biggie Smalls or Tupac with your dollars.

Most of the food on the menu is straight from the trucks, like the tikka masala and garbanzo bean burrito (a fine burrito, if a bit on the heavy side, with a pleasant level of heat), and sexy fries, a pile of cross-cut sweet potato fries topped with meat and a dust of sweet cinnamon spice. Quesadillix, potato-stuffed flatbread with melted cheese, meat, and chutneys, was more like an Indian-inspired grilled cheese sandwich than a quesadilla. “Thee Unburger” had a Whopper-like bun, a potato patty, and was dressed with chutney; it didn't have the delicacy of Mistry's sliders, but delivered enough of a curry wallop to satisfy any cravings for Indian food. The strangest item on the menu is the cheese-filled fried ravioli, straight out of a Midwestern kitchen and served with a creamy curry dipping sauce.

All the food at Curry Up Now tastes vaguely the same, and while it wasn't necessarily traditional, it was, uniformly, delicious. Sometimes worrying about rhetoric can be a distraction from the food itself. Terms like “fusion” and “street food” are the hot new thing only until they become part of the foundation of a new mainstream. Then somebody finds some other food culture tucked away in a corner of the world, sticks it on wheels, and calls it a revolution.

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