The sign on the food truck parked next to a Valero gas station in the hinterlands of northwest Houston reads, “The Original Desi Dhaba.” I found this to be a curious statement. I mean, in order for something to be original, there has to be more than one, right? And there aren’t a lot of dhabas in Houston.
A dhaba is a traditional roadside food stand of northern India that, depending on who you ask, serves either the most dreadful and dangerous, or the most delicious and authentic, Indian street food.
I had ventured far north on Veteran’s Memorial Drive to specifically check out this truck. The food truck craze sweeping through cities like New York, Los Angeles and Austin was slowly making its way to Houston. There had already been several high profile successes and failures of “gourmet” food trucks in Houston and I wondered what makes a food truck successful. I wanted to find a food truck in Houston that was both successful and different from the ubiquitous taco trucks for which Houston is well-known.
A South Asian friend of mine recommended Desi Grill and More, a food truck that’s been around for several years, mostly flying under the radar, probably due to it’s relative inaccessibility on a rough stretch of Veteran’s Memorial near FM 1960. The first thing you notice when you pull into the parking lot is the size of the truck, one of the smallest I’ve ever seen. If it’s a slow night, you’ll also notice a South Asian man sitting in a lawn chair near the front of the truck. This is Mr. Vinod Mehra. He is the owner, host and chef of Desi Grill and More.
Every time I’ve visited his truck, Mr. Mehra has stood up and welcomed me to his establishment. The menu features north Indian/Pakistani cuisine and often includes new or special items. Mr. Mehra is always happy to recommend dishes. After ordering, you take a seat in the slapdash seating area behind the truck. A blue tent covers an endearingly ragged collection of mismatched folding tables and reclaimed Dairy Queen-style booths. One night, a South Asian woman tended a young child laying on a flat, sofa-like day bed of woven fabric. Electric fans offer respite from the summer evening heat, and an old-school boom box blasts desi music.
In terms of pure atmosphere, there are few places in Houston that can match the communal seating area of Desi Grill. Every time I visit, I strike up a conversation with fellow diners, mostly South Asian, who are more than happy to offer recommendations for Houston’s best Indian dishes and restaurants. And this is one of the most important factors in a successful food truck: a seating area, small or otherwise. Unfortunately, seating areas are restricted for food trucks in the city limits of Houston. Desi Grill is located outside the city limits, and the seating area serves it well.
As for the food, it’s great. Mr. Mehra has worked as a Indian food chef in Houston since the 1980s. A recent dinner included an enormous Tandoori Mixed Grill Platter of moist chunks of chicken and minced lamb. Eminently soppable juices from the chicken, lamb, tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers and lime coated the bottom of the platter. Fragrant garlic naan (flatbread) arrives at the table so hot you can’t touch it for a few minutes. Tearing it apart releases a cloud of steam and reveals generous chunks of sweet, tender garlic. Sopping ensues.
On several visits, Mr. Mehra has stopped by my table to inquire about the meal. One night I took the opportunity to ask him about the curious tag line on his food truck.
“Why do you call yourself the “original” desi dhaba?”
“Well, a new dhaba-style truck recently opened on Highway 6 near Sugar Land.”
“Is it any good?”
“I hope so. It’s owned by my son.”
The Tandoori Nite food truck is parked in a Phillips 66 parking lot on a stretch of Highway 6 about halfway between Interstate 10 to the north and Sugar Land to the south. It sits across the highway from the Old Hickory Barbeque Inn, and is sandwiched between a Palace Inn motel on one side and a shopping center with an African grocery store on the other. Sitting in the small seating area (it’s also located outside the city limits) is a feast for the senses. Unmistakable scents of Indian spices – cumin, cardamom, turmeric – waft from the open windows of the truck as you watch the comings and goings at the gas station; the incessant whoosh of traffic on Highway 6 competes with, but never drowns out, the sound of desi music emanating from the truck.
In India, dhabas are manifested as roadside food stands often associated with crossroads and truck stops. In an Indian society that still retains traces of a caste system, dhabas are known as gathering places for Indians of all castes and backgrounds. The location of Tandoori Nite truck certainly captures this spirit: a shiny new Mercedes SL roadster sits at a gas pump across from a Ford F150 with it’s hood up and “Ruben’s House Painting” etched on its side. Foot traffic between the Palace Inn and the gas station convenience store is constant, marked by individuals whose lives may be charitably characterized as “in transition.” Novels could be written, I’m sure, of the cast of characters who flit and float through this unremarkable gas station in far west Houston.
Tandoori Nite is owned by Sakun “Ginny” Mehra, the son of Vinod Mehra. As voluble and gregarious as his father is taciturn and formal, Ginny grew up in Houston and most recently worked as a service rep in an AT&T Wireless store. Several months ago he decided to join the family business and open an Indian food truck for himself. Not unexpectedly, the menu and recipes are similar to his father’s truck. “My father roasts and grinds his own spices,” Ginny notes, calling his father a “master chef.” Everything, according to Ginny, is “fresh” and prepared daily. As noted by one of my dining companions, the presence of coriander stems and big, unseeded chunks of jalapeno in several of the dishes bears this out.
As the truck’s name suggests, the Tandoori chicken is a great choice here. Big pieces of bone-in chicken are liberally marinated in a yogurt and masala sauce and roasted until each piece has a slight char. On the days I visited, the chicken was moist, with a wonderful (and surprisingly high) level of spicy heat. Small cups of a bright, addictive coriander chutney are offered as a condiment.
Other dishes sampled include butter chicken, chana masala and mutton korma. The korma was a standout for me, with a well-balanced sauce and fresh pieces of tender, but not mushy, lamb.
Neither the Desi Grill nor the Tandoori Nite truck sell alcohol, but it’s perfectly acceptable to go to the adjacent convenience stores and bring back a beer to drink with your dinner. Sitting at one of the picnic tables one night, lingering over the mutton korma and a bottle of Shiner Bock, I asked Ginny why he chose this location for his food truck. Was there a big South Asian community nearby?
“Not really,” he said. “But it’s a good central location, a crossroads. There’s a big South Asian community in Sugar Land, and a growing one in Katy. And the South Asian community around Hillcroft Drive is within striking distance.”
He also noted that he is friends with the South Asian owner of the gas station where the truck is parked. Which is another clue as to how a food truck can be successful: a support system that is both family and business oriented. The South Asian business community in Houston is well-organized, and a good relationship with a property owner is one of the biggest factors in the success of a food truck.
Ultimately, there are many factors in a food truck’s success: a cuisine and culture with a tradition of street food, a strong family and business support system, advantageous government regulations, and, most importantly, great food made with care and sincerity. Would-be food truck entrepreneurs riding the crest of the wave into Houston would be wise to take notice of the success of the Mehra Indian food truck family.
Desi Grill and More
12672 Veterans Memorial Dr.
Houston, TX 77014
Open 7 days a week – 6pm to midnite
7821 Hwy 6 South
Houston, TX 77083
Open 6 days a week – 5:30pm to midnite
If you are driving far to visit these trucks, I recommend calling ahead to make sure they are open and confirm what time they are closing. Both trucks are 100% halal.
This blog entry was originally posted 17 August 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.