Indian Food for The People

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Drawing from Punjabi roots and North American experiences with a focus on quality over convenience, the family behind Badmaash have become the latest L.A. food success story.
Design by Evan Solano. Photography by Richard Crespin.

An industrial section of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is a long way from the gleaming kitchens of their three restaurants in Los Angeles, but when Action Bronson, the biggest rapper-slash-foodie in the game, called, brothers Nakul and Arjun Mahendro knew they had to answer. 

This past March, the brothers flew in armed with lamb burgers, butter chicken, pickled vegetables and other favorites from their Los Angeles bistro Badmaash, the product of their Punjabi roots and upbringing in suburban Toronto. Bronson and his workout companion Martin Licis, the World’s Strongest Man in 2019, were hungry and ready to start their sidewalk cookout and so the group huddled around a small charcoal grill.

“A lamb burger with mayo and ketchup? I fucking wanna break both of your necks. I love it,” Bronson tells the Mahendro brothers before devouring their offering. 

Given their recent trajectory, it’s unsurprising that Arjun and Nakul look so at ease chopping it up with Bronson for his YouTube show “Fuck That’s Delicious.” Frequently clad in all black, the brothers are imposing men. Nakul is the elder and taller of the pair, with a shaved head and black-framed glasses. Arjun is younger and brasher, rarely seen without a baseball cap on his head. 

Eight years ago, the Mahendro family was largely unknown in Los Angeles. When they decided to open Badmaash in a cozy, split-level dining room on a then unfashionable block of downtown Los Angeles, across from LAPD headquarters and on the border with Little Tokyo, they were roundly mocked.

“There were Indian doctors who laughed at us,” Nakul recalls of the response they received. “Downtown?”

By contrast, their new casual burger joint, Burgers 99, opened last March to feverish anticipation, resulting in a line around the block for most of the first week. Odd Future frontman Tyler, the Creator was on hand to shoot the restaurant’s opening photos. Their first weeks in business featured collaborations with hip-hop heavyweight Freddie Gibbs and appearances from producer Alchemist. Celebrities dot the brothers’ social media feeds, and they have even turned up at fashion shows. 

It’s a distinctly Los Angeles form of success, and it reflects how the Mahendro brothers have managed to tap into local diners’ constant search for something that feels new yet remains grounded in the familiar. They have become part of a small group of L.A. restaurateurs who excel at delivering people the food they grew up eating remixed for adult palettes.

Around Badmaash’s third or fourth year in business, the brothers changed their slogan to “Indian food for the people.” Today, that’s how they define Badmaash. The wall of the second outpost on Fairfax spells out “City of Angels” in Hindi. The Fairfax restaurant’s neon sign is also in Hindi script, an untranslated “bat signal to South Asians” as well as young artists, fashionistas and anyone excited about South Asian culture. 

The early hype around Badmaash centered on dishes reflecting their unique Indo-Canadian point of view such as a chicken tikka poutine and the lamb burger Bronson keenly devoured in Brooklyn. However, it is the subtle hand and classical training of their father, chef Pawan Mahendro, that keeps patrons returning nearly a decade later. With all three restaurants thriving after the pandemic decimated much of the city’s fine dining industry, the family’s plan to serve gourmet-quality Indian cuisine in a casual setting has proven to be an ideal formula for a turbulent era.

“We don’t take any shortcuts,” Nakul says. “We wanted it to be casual, but with the same cuisine and service as fine dining restaurants.”

On a warm Thursday this past June, the Mahendro family gathered in the small office of the test kitchen behind Burgers 99 on La Brea. It’s where the four of them — Nakul, Arjun and their parents, Pawan and Anu — can be found most weekdays coming up with specials, managing their small coterie of restaurants and dreaming up future business expansions. The family relishes the close quarters and ability to interject, argue and kibitz over any number of issues which always circle back to food, all the while staffers and cooks troop in and out with questions on a dozen different topics.

Watching the Mahendro family debate in the back of the prep kitchen, it’s clear that for them food is not just a profession but an obsession. Even the sandwiches we order for lunch from a nearby deli are subject to close scrutiny, with Pawan suggesting tweaks like the addition of a pepper to liven up a limp turkey sub. Behind the scenes this feels very much like a family operation, and it’s clear that the brothers are intentional about preserving that vibe as they screen job candidates.  

“We don’t really like to hire anyone who just treats it like a job,” Nakul observes.

That mentality is something they have clearly inherited from their parents, and in particular their father. A genial man with a trim salt-and-pepper beard, Pawan becomes most animated when discussing the failures of what he calls “stereotypical” Indian restaurants. 

“They may make one good item, then everything else is bullshit,” he says. “Why have a lamb section with 12 lamb items when you can only make one good one?” 

The list of alleged violations is lengthy: reliance on tired tropes for decor and ambience, poor hygiene, extensive menus where all dishes taste the same. But most of his complaints boil down to a lack of care, an unforgivable sin for Pawan. 

“Why can’t you serve the dish the way it has to be? Why do you need to tweak it to your ease?” he asks. “They are taking shortcuts. Every Indian restaurant is doing this. That [led to] our success in Toronto.”

Extensive experience in the kitchen has made Pawan passionate about the subject and led him to advocate for Indian food to be prepared with the same attention to detail and professionalism as other global cuisines. This attitude might be more prevalent in the culinary world today yet for many Indian food still means inexpensive, soupy takeaway curries that are largely indistinguishable. In Los Angeles, a long way from Mumbai or London, Badmaash offers a convincing argument against this dated and lazy assumption. 

Pawan Mahendro’s story began in Amritsar, Punjab, where he was born to a family that owned local businesses including an ice factory, cold storage, and a movie theater (which he still owns). Early on he was steered toward a career in hospitality, coinciding with his family’s plans to open a new hotel in their hometown. Their hopes for the hotel were eventually derailed by local unrest but the career path stuck. 

A young Pawan duly spent three years at the Institute of Hotel Management Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition at then-Bombay College, where he studied under legendary Indian nutritionist and cooking instructor Thangam Philip. He describes Philip as “super disciplined,” and details how on the first day students were instructed to get down on their hands and knees to scrub the pavement in the yard. Many of the more affluent students walked out immediately. After three years only a third of the initial class graduated. 

“We thought we had gone to jail for three years. That’s how bad it was,” Pawan recalls with a laugh.

He excelled at both the business and culinary aspects of school and with Philip’s recommendation found employment with the Taj Hotel Group, a well-known hotel chain in Asia. He began his hospitality career in the kitchen of the Golden Dragon restaurant, in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, where he was trained in Sichuan, continental and Indian cuisine. It was during this time that Pawan met Anu. While she was born and raised in Mumbai, her father hailed from Amritsar and he and Pawan bonded over their shared Punjabi roots at the Taj’s Sea Lounge, where couples are still introduced before engagements today. 

Pawan also frequented the famous Bademiya food stall, located behind the hotel, which is known for its seekh kebab made of ground lamb. Badmaash’s lamb burger and seekh kebab are based on Bademiya’s take, and the brothers both say their father is fanatical about treating the lamb with kid gloves. 

“Dad is always yelling ‘Don’t over-handle the seekh kebab. Don’t pack it in,” says Nakul .

“Downtown was up and coming. It just felt the most like home, everywhere else in L.A. was so young. Downtown was the only place with 100-year-old buildings.”

Nakul Mahendro

After a few years working for Taj and other hotels in Mumbai, along with a stint running his own catering business, Pawan was eventually approved for a Canadian visa. He packed his bags, proposed to Anu, and moved to Toronto, where his sister had already settled. In Toronto he bounced around between gigs before rising in the local restaurant scene and settling in as corporate chef for the Daily Planet Cafe and Grill, where he spent nine years.

During this time, Anu also made her way to Canada. Having studied commerce in India, she was forced to start over as a receptionist before climbing the ladder as an accountant and eventually managing the books for major restaurants in Toronto and New York while taking care of the children. The boys enjoyed a Canadian upbringing that blended their parents’ Punjabi dishes with local favorites like burgers and poutine.

“By the way, I came from a very Hindu vegetarian family but, okay, beef is the best tasting meat,” Anu says with a laugh.

Pawan cycled through a few more restaurant and catering jobs, including two years running a French restaurant in Rockland County, New York, and even a short stint as a commodities trader. Eventually, he found his way back to Toronto and began to seriously consider opening his own Indian restaurant free of the usual tropes. 

The family opened Jaipur Grille in October 2002 with a modern decor and a menu that featured mostly Indian restaurant favorites alongside a selection of rarer, regional Indian delicacies like Assamese Fish. Despite their familiarity, the dishes drew praise from local food critics thanks to Pawan’s attention to detail and predilection for doing everything from scratch. He refused to take some of the shortcuts many other Indian restaurants rely on, such as using one base sauce for multiple curries or adding onion masala to sabzi (vegetable) dishes to add flavor and make them easier to reheat. “Doing this,” he explains, “makes all of a restaurant’s dishes taste similar.”

These exacting standards paid off within a month of Jaipur Grille’s opening when Toronto Globe and Mail critic Joanna Kates, known for her acid-tipped pen, delighted in the restaurant’s offerings. She published a rave review claiming: “Jaipur serves the opposite of Indian restaurant clichés: the most splendid curries and tandoori roasts. The food is light, ungreasy, subtle, each dish distinctly flavoured.” 

“That changed everything for us. We had a line,” Pawan says. “People would come in and say, ‘We will eat anything. No questions asked.’”

A similar scene later played out at Badmaash, which took a year to construct before its 2013 opening. After closing Jaipur Grille in 2010, the Mahendro family once again found itself looking to move west. After touring various cities across the U.S., seeking somewhere warm that also felt like home, Pawan and Anu found what they were looking for in Southern California. 

The family was looking to open a restaurant, but Indian cuisine wasn’t on the agenda, partly because of the difficulty in getting customers used to cheap Indian restaurants to pay higher prices for better ingredients and more carefully-prepared food. But upon arriving in Southern California and settling in Irvine, the region’s lack of quality Indian options steered them back toward their roots.

“There are so many Indians, so affluent, but no places to eat!” Anu recalls.

They landed downtown at the right moment. The energy of the relatively upstart dining scene was reflected in Badmaash’s tendency to play with Indian restaurant clichés. While the decor and tone of the restaurant was decidedly youthful, the food was a reflection of Pawan’s vast experience and exacting standards.

 “Downtown was up and coming,” Nakul says. “It just felt the most like home, everywhere else in L.A. was so young. Downtown was the only place with 100-year-old buildings.”

A sign during construction made it clear to the neighborhood that a new Indian restaurant was coming. The lack of other sit-down dining options in the area also gave the Mahendros an advantage. Still, the family was taken aback by their immediate success.

“We hit the ground running at 100 mph,” Pawan says of the Badmaash opening. “We were not closing at designated hours, we were closing because we were out of food.”

Early word of mouth around dishes such as the chicken tikka poutine, combining Punjabi chicken kebabs with the Canadian dish of fries covered in gravy and cheese, helped quickly spread the word about the restaurant. Yet most of the menu did not look out of place at a “traditional” Indian restaurant. The difference was in the execution — using higher quality ingredients, freshly grinding the masalas for each dish — as evidenced by the rows of containers lining the prep kitchen.

“If you want a better product for your customers, it’s going to come with a price,” says Anu. “We cook in much smaller batches, so our kitchen is constantly running. Those are the things that translate into good quality food.” 

Even the vanilla ice cream sandwiches they serve for dessert come with fresh Parle-G biscuits, small bites of nostalgia for anyone who has spent time on the subcontinent. Pawan’s expertise shines in the rotating specials and less prominent menu items, like his recent decision to cook biryani and boti kebab with Wagyu beef. The combination of the piquant, fatty beef and fragrant rice in the biryani is a revelation, while the succulent boti kebab is a peek at where Indian-American barbecue could be headed.

The Fairfax location opened five years after downtown, cementing the family’s status as the preeminent South Asian restaurateurs in the city. Copycats emerged, and poutine popped up on local Indian menus, much to the annoyance of the boys. Their father is more philosophical: “If this guy can do what we do, I’ll shake his hand. I’m not going to be upset at that. Only we know how hard it is to do that.” 

For the Mahendro brothers, Burgers 99 is a victory lap of sorts. With their first two restaurants running smoothly with minimal oversight, they sought a new challenge that didn’t involve Indian food. They were drawn to a section of La Brea dotted with boutiques and banks that still lacked a quick and delicious eatery. The concept was simple: classic American burgers in an unpretentious but welcoming storefront. 

“I’ve personally always had an affinity for those neighborhood burger joints that look like they’ve been there for hundreds of years,” Nakul says. “The food is mad greasy, and [the burgers] are served on paper plates with brown bags of fries.” 

Despite its relative youth, Burgers 99 has that sense of familiarity, boasting a large neon red sign, tiled countertops and a sparse interior. It had the misfortune of opening two weeks before the pandemic brought the restaurant industry to a screeching halt, nonetheless, a very long year and a half later, the restaurant and the family behind it are thriving.

I left Burgers 99 one early evening and made my way to the Fairfax Badmaash location, which like the rest of California had reopened two days prior. There were pink booths strung with fairy lights stretching across three parking spaces in front of the restaurant, one of the few lasting positives to emerge from the pandemic.

The restaurant was still doing brisk takeout business, as evidenced by the line of brown to-go bags above the kitchen window. Watching the dining room fill, I realized Badmaash is a rebuke to dated notions of what Indian restaurants can be: a casual, sit-down restaurant serving fine regional Indian cuisine, which people are lining up to pay for. Not only is Action Bronson an acolyte, the Los Angeles Times recently added Badmaash to their list of the 101 Best Restaurants of 2020. Still, not everyone is impressed. 

“A lot of Indian people just don’t fuck with us,” Arjun tells me later that evening at our table next to the window. The family is familiar with criticism of their restaurants from other South Asians, mostly centered around the prices. 

“We hit the ground running at 100 mph. We were not closing at designated hours, we were closing because we were out of food.”

Pawan Mahendro

“People have asked us, ‘You know I can get biryani for $10-12. Why is your biryani $30?’” Pawan says. “I say, ‘Try both and tell me. I don’t have the intelligence to give you that answer.’”

“Back in the day, a lot of these Indian restaurants were done out of need and necessity,” Anu adds. “In Toronto, when we were there, there were times when I felt so bad that people did not have any respect for [Pawan’s] education, his execution, the quality of food he was giving, because there were women who were cooking that food at home who had zero overhead.” 

Anu describes a familiar trajectory for immigrant cuisine: a token carried by the first generation as a remembrance of home, sold out of necessity and passed on to the next generation, for whom it is a source of nourishment, embarrassment, and ultimately, comfort. Eventually, it is remixed and absorbed by the culture at large.

I surveyed the dining room as the brothers departed and realized that Arjun was right. The only other visible South Asian in the restaurant was a young lady at the next table. When her date went to the restroom, I seized the opportunity. Her name was Sneha, and her Goan pork curry was “very delicious.” She didn’t mince words when asked how Badmaash compares to other Indian restaurants. 

“It’s a lot better,” she replies without hesitation. “If you served this to me on the side of the street in a cardboard box I’d say this is the best Indian street food I’ve ever had.”

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