I don’t eat Indian food. That’s not a hard fast rule or anything, it’s just a fact. I shy away from anything super spicy and know that certain oils have a tendency to, quite literally, turn my stomach. And, honestly, there’s something about sauce-induced anything that just doesn’t look appealing. So I don’t eat Indian food. But I do have a food rule (yes, a hard fast rule) that I will taste anything at least once. You just never know when you’re going to find your new favorite. Well, I found my new favorite fast-casual restaurant. Catch this — it’s an Indian joint.

Ok, it’s South Asian inspired. What happens when three friends with business degrees decide to quite their jobs in finance and enter the risky restaurant business? Well, first they get jobs at Chipotle. Then they create a space that serves the food they felt was missing from the fast-casual food nation.

Ok. Let’s back up a bit. Hasnain, Vijay, and Jason (an Indian, a Pakistani, and an American…walk into a bar…wait no…) are friends since they’re days at Duke. All of them had lucrative careers in finance, but none of them really felt fulfilled — both professionally and, quite honestly, culinarily. As Hasnain put it during my brief interview with him at the Tava Kitchen in Palo Alto, “Both in college and out while traveling for business — it was the same food over and over.” Hasnain and Vijay both come from South Asian families who served them food from their cultural backgrounds. Used to a certain level of intensity in their meals, they found that their go-to foods, now that they’re away from home cooking. were rather bland and boring. Same sandwiches, burritos, sushi, what-have-you, everywhere they went left them thinking — there should be more.

Now since they all have backgrounds and educations in business and finance, they took what could have been a completely impulsive career change and took the time to learn the business. Hence the Chipotle “internship.” Hasnain says he knew that the “Chipotle model” was the model they wanted to follow: a place where people could order what they want, sit if they had the time, or easily take anything on the menu to go.

Tava Kitchen, Palo Alto – just a few barstools on the interior and traditional tables along the exterior of this mostly to-go, fast-casual restaurant

So you may be wondering what kind of training did these guys have? Who are they to prepare food for the masses? Well, although Chipotle gave them the foundation of the day-to-day operations, it’s obvious that this isn’t the exact cuisine these guys were keen on serving. During their time as students and as traveling professionals, they found a lack of the all-out intensity that is South Asian cuisine. But — and this is kind of a big but — they wanted something that conformed to the California-fresh model as well. Meaning, they want to source local ingredients, change the menu with the seasons, and keep the items on the meal options light enough that you could have anything on the menu in the middle of the day and not feel weighed down by the traditional “weightiness” of an Indian or South Asian meal.

Whoa. That’s a lot to take in and a lot to execute. So the boys sought professional help. I’m talking head-honcho help. They sought expert advice from big name chefs like Srijith Gopinathan from SF Michelin-starred restaurant Taj. Yeah, Hasnain admits to basically stalking the guy until he could finally meet him face-to-face and ask him for his input on this Cal-fresh-South-Asian-inspired menu he was trying to work out in his head. Suffice it to say, stalking worked, and we can thank Srijith (among others) for the well-balanced menu that is now in place at Tava Kitchen.

So what can you expect from the Tava Kitchen menu? During my time with Hasain, I was able to try everything the Palo Alto location had to offer. Sure, some things weren’t quite to my palate (Hello Tava Lava: “Insanely spicy ghost pepper hot sauce”) and some things I found a little out of place (like the South Asian Mac and Cheese: “Shell pasta baked with cheddar and jack cheeses topped with a Tava spiced panko crumb” — side note: it’s apparently the most popular order). But the business model holds: everything is fresh and fresh tasting even the items that seem to be “inundated with sauce,” and there really is something for everyone on the menu with the added enjoyment of mixing and matching as one pleases.

A selection of entrees and sides from Tava Kitchen, Palo Alto

My personal recommendations? Well, personally I recommend you try everything on the menu that sounds appealing to you. Like things spicy-hot? Then you’ll love the braised beef topped with the three-pepper jicama. Like things a little sweeter? My go-to side has to be the golden beets sprinkled with candied cashews. Vegetarian? I cannot sing high enough praises for the paneer tikka — with its tofu-like consistency, light but creamy sauce, and it’s herbaceous seasoning throughout (I guess that’s what I’m going back for). But don’t negate the absolute classic chicken tikka, especially when garnished with the pickled veggies which bring a freshness and lightness to the whole experience.

And be as healthy (or as not-healthy) as you want — each protein and topping can be wrapped into freshly baked naan (burroti), served in a bowl with rice (or brown rice), or even placed atop a bed of lettuce. I think if it’s your first time at Tava, go with a friend (or a couple of friends) and have everyone order something different, each off each other’s plates, and see what your new favorite is.

Hasnain Zaidi, co-founder and owner of Tava Kitchen; Photo courtesy of Wagstaff Worldwide

Thank you to Hasnain for hosting me at the Palo Alto location of Tava Kitchen. I look forward to coming by again eat some of my new favorite foods and to returning when the seasons change to taste test the fresh menu. For more information about Tava Kitchen, their full menu, and their other two Bay Area locations, please visit the Tava Kitchen website.

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