The Spice Is Right With These Indian Tacos
A mix of cultures in a Tex-Mex shell
You can turn just about anything into a taco. Thanks to several talented Indian chefs merging spices and ingredients from the East and West, Austin's way of life – handheld meal perfection – is even more flavorful.
Dipak Topiwala brought this idea to Austin years ago when he created a menu of Tex-Mex-Indian dishes at Whip In, the bodega-turned-gastropub his parents opened in Travis Heights in 1986. The "Whip Indianized" menu, as they dubbed it, included dishes like queso with cilantro chutney and "panaani" pressed sandwiches made with tandoor-baked flatbread.
The South Austin institution has since been sold to new ownership, and Topiwala has been focusing on his own ventures: contract brewing at Orf Brewing for his label Kamala Gardens, and running his Indian taco truck, Lotus Joint, which features a menu of Big Lebowski-inspired tacos – like the Dude, made with goat, poblano chutney, feta cheese, and cucumber-jalapeño pico. "My food is actually just like my music: Indian ingredients with an Americanized setting or exterior," says Topiwala, who plays classical Indian music on his saxophone.
Topiwala makes his own corn tortillas with turmeric and garlic, plus white wheat tortillas with ginger, and sometimes uses spent grain in his dough, too. Since opening last winter, his truck has circulated around town to Live Oak Brewing Company, Independence Brewing Co., and various events (it's best to track his whereabouts on Facebook).
"Tacos are basically the kind of Gujarati Indian food I grew up with – veggies in rotis," says Topiwala. "Chutney is a great way of expressing the flavors and matching vegetables and proteins, like bitter melon and goat. I find Indian and Mexican spices to be very similar and complementary."
Last August, a new food trailer appeared at the corner of Riverside and Congress. At Kurry Takos, chef/owner Ravi Chandra makes small batches of his Indian curries and grills kebabs and paneers to order. All dishes can be ordered as a bowl, which comes with rice and salad, or as a "tako," on a paratha. But get there early or you'll miss out, because he sells out almost every day. "I make only a little at a time," says Chandra. "I want people to be happy about the food. I try to treat them how I eat. And I'm very, very picky, so I give them the freshest." Chandra grew up cooking in his native Bangalore, and previously owned a high-end restaurant in Denver called Chutney's, before moving to Austin and launching Kurry Takos as an homage to his two favorite cuisines.
Each of Chandra's "takos" feature sizable, Instagram-ready portions. The Hungry Texan, for example, is heaped with chicken tikka masala, coco rice, chutney, crema, avocado, jalapeño, queso, and cilantro. Chandra has a local baker make his paratha, a slightly thicker version of flatbread than roti, but he makes his own corn tortillas spiced with onion, jalapeño, cilantro, cumin, and garam seeds.
"With Indian food, we use many of the same spices [as Mexican food]," says Chandra. "Cilantro, cinnamon, ginger, jaggery, cumin, chile – it's almost all the same, but different types of sauces. So I thought, why don't we start mixing it up?"
This intuitive marriage of Eastern and Western flavors is what inspired chef Deepa Shridhar to create her dinner series, Anjore Austin, before launching her Chaiwalla food delivery and cafe at farmers' markets across the city in 2014. It was then that she introduced roti tacos to Austin, griddling her tender, just-chewy-enough flatbread and filling it with different seasonal ingredients each week: fried farm eggs, green mole, escabeche pickles, preserved lemon, chai ash, and bacon-butter masala.
"I didn't trust ingredients and myself as much back then," says Shridhar. "They were overly composed, like five different garnishes. We would call them 'open-faced kati rolls' – and then finally realized we were making tacos!"
Shridhar's passion for local, seasonal ingredients means her wildly inventive menus are constantly changing. She is currently reinterpreting her signature naan croissants in paratha form and using Barton Springs Mill flour and local corn to perfect roti chips. But at her food truck Puli-Ra, which now calls Texas Keeper Cider home, there's almost always a roti taco on the menu (though she tries to keep things to a simple, three-ingredient combination these days).
"Tacos make sense," says Shridhar. "Also, every culture is making tacos in a way – it's just always a couple steps away."