“Unapologetically Authentic Indian”: The Restaurateur Changing The US Food Scene
The hardest table to get in New York City might just be inside a food hall next to a Regal Cinemas. There is no tried or true way to get a table at Dhamaka, the restaurant that serves “provincial Indian cuisine” inside Essex Market. But if you can get in, you will discover combinations of flavour (and levels of heat) that many would never have encountered before; a spicy biryani with a plethora of layers, a cocktail built around betel leaves and, for the brave, goat testicles. Dhamaka, needless to say, is a game-changing addition to New York’s restaurant scene.
Chintan Pandya, the award-winning chef behind Dhamaka, and his co-founder Roni Mazumdar started their restaurant group Unapologetic Foods because they wanted to serve “unapologetically authentic Indian”. The ethos is just as applicable to the unapologetic scale of Pandya’s goals. “My ambition has always been to push the needle forward for Indian food,” he says.
“I want to make Indian food a mainstream cuisine in America,” Pandya continues. He cites Italian and French as so-called “mainstream cuisines,” comparing them to the relatively underdeveloped place of Indian food in the US. There’s also, he notes, enduring racism in the food industry (and the real estate industry that runs beneath it). “Even today, there are landlords that don’t want Indian restaurants in their spot,” Pandya says, revealing how over the course of his career, landlords have upcharged him and revoked leases.
For the past few years, Unapologetic Foods has been transforming the place of Indian food by blowing up the New York dining scene with its blitz of new restaurants. Of course, there are the dine-in spots such as Dhamaka and Semma, the South Indian restaurant run by Pandya’s colleague Vijay Kumar that just landed in The New York Times’ Best American Restaurants. But Pandya is also breaking into fast casual and delivery with Kebabwala (a top-notch kebab spot in a city where they’re hard to come by) and Rowdy Rooster, a tiny joint in the East Village where you can grab an insanely spicy chicken sandwich with a mango lassi and some eggplant bites on your way home from work. “People laugh at us [and say], ‘You have these successful restaurants, why are you opening up a small fried-chicken kiosk thing?’ And I just say, ‘We love it! We love fried chicken,’” says Pandya. And if running multiple award-winning restaurants (including Masalawala & Sons, a brand-new, already-packed Park Slope smash hit) and launching a fast-casual food empire wasn’t enough, Unapologetic Foods is also working on ‘aerobanquets’ – a dining experience in the metaverse mediated by virtual-reality headsets. (On the day I spoke to him, Pandya squeezed me in between kitchen tests and meetings with Facebook.)
This is all to say that Pandya is doing a lot, and fast. True to the name of his brand, though, he’s not sorry about it. If anyone really can change the face of Indian cuisine in America, it’s him.
Colin Groundwater is a freelance journalist based in London and New York whose work has appeared in GQ and Vanity Fair