When Bombay-born Srini Rao moved his family to Upper Saddle River in 2009, one of the first things he noticed was a lack of Indian food. “If you wanted to eat good Indian food, you had to go to Ridgewood or Manhattan,” he says. “Nothing was great.”
Rao works in the clothing industry in Manhattan, but that didn’t stop him from opening his first restaurant, Nirvana Indian Kitchen, in Allendale in 2014, or Downtown Dhaba in Westwood three years later, introducing North Jersey to a whole new Indian restaurant model—the dhaba.
According to the restaurant’s website, dhaba “is a generic name for the eateries in the North of India that serve fresh, local cuisine.” It’s like a “roadside shack,” says Rao. “From north to south in India, every truck stop is called ‘dhaba.’” Unlike the salty service and passable burgers of your average American truck stop, the dhaba concept is fresh, local, and surprisingly not just northern. “I am from Bombay. Bombay is like Manhattan; you get all sorts of cuisine. Even in India, you go to any restaurant, you’ll get dishes from both the north and the south.”
Downtown Dhaba’s menu has a semi-familiar array of meaty curries and breads (north) and biryani rice dishes and chewy dosas (south), but it’s elaborated with dishes like Punjabi Kurkuri Bhindi (crispy fried okra) and the Mughlai/Central Asian-influenced Machi Masaledar (spiced tandoor salmon). The days of hyper-regional Indian cuisine might still be ahead of us, but Downtown Dhaba is slowly expanding our horizons. The restaurant does offer butter chicken, the more authentic Indian dish, directly under American favorite chicken tikka masala.
Beyond fresh ingredients (sourced from Subzi Bazaar and Patel Brothers), Downtown Dhaba has one extremely unique advantage: Rao’s wife Himani. “She’s also a partner in the business. When she comes [to check on the restaurant], even I’m scared! She sees everything.” The restaurant seems to run on a blend of homespun intuition and exacting standards personified in Himani, whose hyper-intuitive cooking is a model of sorts. “When I cook,” says Rao, “I measure teaspoon, tablespoon, everything. She’ll be cooking and she could close her eyes and she’ll make it perfect.” No surprise, says Rao, “she’s the critic of our restaurant. She needs it to be 110 percent. She checks on things, she tries everything. If something’s not good, she’ll talk to the chef. To her, next time it should be perfect, or don’t do it.”
Between Himani and Srini, the Raos eat at their restaurants at least twice a week. Srini even treks all the way back from Manhattan to make it to Dhaba in time for late lunch (“that’s when you need to test the food, 2:30, right before lunch ends”). The goal is homestyle, authentic, and technically exacting, perhaps no better exemplified than in the garam masala. Like a house marinara, garam masala is the backbone of any good Indian restaurant. It’s essential, it’s finicky, and it’s a secret. “We put it in everything,” says Rao. “Every dish gets a pinch.” Reasonably cagey with the details, Rao does tell us that he gets many of his spices from India and they make their garam masala in-house no fewer than three times a week. It’s made with “12 to 16 different spices,” including “cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf, mustard seeds, fenugreek, curry leaves.” The methods, like Dhaba, blend old school with precision. “You measure it by hand—old technology.”
The masala blend is so special, even some of Downtown Dhaba’s five chefs don’t know it. Out of the five—who specialize in things like the tandoor oven, breads, etc.—Rao says, “at least two know how to make it.” But like any good family business, it’s a matter of loyalty. “You’re with me one or two years, you’ll learn everything.”
Downtown Dhaba, formerly at 31 Westwood Avenue, is moving to a larger location at 266 Center Avenue. According to Rao, they are set to reopen in the last week of October. 201-664-0123Click here to leave a comment