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The Story of Badmaash: Serving Indian Food in Downtown L.A.

Watch the second episode of "The Migrant Kitchen." S2 E2: Badmaash.

Across the street from LAPD headquarters in downtown L.A., Badmaash has become a gathering place for the business community, police officers, artists and food adventurers. Badmaash, which means naughty rascal, deviant, or villain, likely has never been used as the name of a restaurant serving Indian food. Alongside the traditional dishes, the Badmaash menu lives up to their name by serving boldly spiced lamb burgers, paprika masala fried chicken, chili cheese naan and their decadent chicken tikka poutine. Yes, poutine.   

“Our grandfather used to call us badmaash when we would do something dumb. Because we are being playful with the food, this restaurant is Badmaash,” explains owner Nakul Mahendro sitting next to his co-owner and brother Arjun Mahendro and across from their father, Pawan Mahendro, the restaurant’s head chef. The three of them take on the responsibilities for every aspect of the restaurant.

The Badmaash menu reflects Chef Pawan Mahendro’s odyssey, which took him from Amritsar, India through Toronto, Canada, and finally, Los Angeles. Chef Pawan grew up in the city of Amritsar in the state of Punjab, a region of India known for serving superb food from the street hawkers to the elegant cafes. “Anywhere you go, the food is 10 out of 10,” says Chef Pawan with a wistful look in his eyes. The state of Punjab is also known for food that was always all-natural and farm fresh, a standard the Mahendros have adopted at Badmaash. “No flavor enhancers, no thickeners, nothing. That’s what I grew up with,” he says.

Various pickled vegetables in the kitchen of Badmaash
Jenny Kim

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Inspired by the large family Chef Pawan grew up with in Punjab, Badmaash consciously offers something for everyone. “In our house, my grandmother was a strict vegetarian. My father, strict non-vegetarian. If there is no meat, my uncle is going to ask, ‘Who is sick in the house?’ He will put money in someone’s hand. A kid is going to run to the corner and bring meat.” Now the Badmaash menu features plenty of meat options, as well as choices for pescatarians and vegetarians that would make their extended family feel at home.

Chef Pawan’s talents also shine brightly in his sauce-making skills. The Badmaash menu, for example, offers a rich version of butter chicken, a fenugreek cream sauce under tender lamb chops and coconut curry mussels with turmeric and paprika. And then there is the Badmaash poutine. In Canada, poutine is a classic comfort food. Its combination of fries, cheese curds and gravy is a staple. When the Mahendros were conceiving their menu, Chef Pawan questioned his sons' inclusion of this Canadian dish, to which Arjun replied, “We just wanted a poutine because we wanted to eat it.”

An idea began to take shape in Chef Pawan’s mind and he asked his sons, “What if we made it with the masala fries?” After a moment, he added, “What if we top it with chicken tikka and cilantro?” They all sat back for a minute to imagine it. Then Chef Pawan went into the kitchen and put their idea on a plate. The three of them tasted the dish and immediately knew they had something special. Since then, chicken tikka poutine has become one of their most popular signature dishes. At Coachella this year, hundreds lined up to get a taste of it.

A tandoori chicken dish at Badmaash
Jenny Kim

At Badmaash, the combination of traditional and modern perspectives are everywhere. The Mahendros are as likely to be celebrating a holiday like Diwali as they are to participate in Pebble Beach Food & Wine, one of the country’s premier food festivals. They’ve also collaborated with Burgerlords in Chinatown and launched a podcast with Alvin Cailan of Eggslut. (It’s called the Super Amazing Restaurant Show).

When asked today, Chef Pawan does not remember wanting to learn to cook. He realizes now the seeds of his career may have been planted at a very young age. When he was about five years old, Mahendro spent time with his music-loving uncle who rehearsed playing harmonium and sitar, while drinking whiskey. Chef Pawan and his brother would be commanded to sit with their uncle and fetch sodas, ice and more whiskey. “He would offer us a sip. And at the same time, he was also cooking some meat for dinner. He would say, ‘Go mix it. Put some charcoal in there.’ It is so amazing when you look back and everything is twenty-twenty. I never thought of cooking. But all of those days have played a very important part in my life.”

Chef Pawan’s parents were instrumental in his culinary career choice. His father had purchased a piece of land with the intention of building a four-star hotel on it. When Pawan announced that he wanted to go to medical school, the family steered him toward hospitality instead. The chef’s culinary path was full of twists and turns including taking German classes to be able to go to school in Austria. Eventually, he enrolled in hotel management school in Bombay where most of the classes were cooking and learning about running restaurants. He graduated at the top of his class. Chef Pawan was then offered a job at the Taj Mahal Intercontinental in Bombay, first cooking in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and then a French one. Later, he worked as a captain at Air India’s Centaur Hotel.

Chef Pawan cooking in the kitchen of Badmaash
Jenny Kim

By then, Chef Pawan set his sights outside of India, to Toronto. When the chef arrived, however, Canada was in the midst of a severe recession. He returned to India to get married, but quickly returned to Toronto to avoid the dire political unrest happening in India at that time. “There were violent riots, trains on fire, buildings burning down. The prime minister of India was killed in 1984. At that moment my father told me you are not coming back to this country.”  The family hotel was never built. His father sold the property in a fire sale.

While living in Toronto, Chef Pawan and his wife had two sons. To support his family, Pawan spent years working in every kind of kitchen, from fine dining to event catering. “At one point Dad was the highest-paid chef in Canada,” says Nakul. Chef Pawan eventually turned the wealth of skills he’s built up over the years toward his own venture, Jaipur Grille. The Indian dishes served at his restaurant caught the attention of the most prominent food critic in Toronto. In her 2003 review, Joanne Kates writes, “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.”

Throughout their childhood, Nakul and Arjun learned firsthand what it was like to have chef for a father. They had experienced Chef Pawan working long hours and even spending extended periods of time in New York for job opportunities. When they opened Jaipur Grille, Nakul and Arjun worked some days at their father’s restaurant after school and on the weekends. While running Jaipur Grille, the 2008 recession hit with dire consequences for much of Toronto’s restaurant scene. It was then that another door opened for the Mahendros. The green cards that Pawan applied for while working in New York a decade earlier finally came through.

Nakul, Arjun, and Pawan Mahendros at Badmaash
Jenny Kim

To scout their prospective new country, the Chef Pawan and his wife planned a six-week trip that included a visit to a friend who lived in Florida. On a stop in Los Angeles, the couple experienced California sunshine first-hand. Pawan vividly remembers his emotions that day. The mild warm weather felt good. He recalls seeing people laughing and smiling and how beautiful the city was in any direction he looked. Other U.S. cities on their itinerary paled in comparison to L.A. In Arizona, the Mahendros were shocked by the intense heat and scared by the scorpions. In Florida, they found bushes full of scurrying lizards. Los Angeles was their clear choice.

When he returned to Toronto, Chef Pawan’s mission was to convince his two sons to move to California with him. Nakul was considering moving to New York to look for a job in fine dining. Arjun was in business school. Neither was excited about the idea of relocating to California. Undeterred, Pawan traveled back and forth to Los Angeles and eventually convinced the boys. “Nakul, why are you going to New York to help someone else build their dream?” he asked. “Come to L.A. Let’s open a restaurant together.” When Arjun and Nakul visited Los Angeles afterwards, they soon found themselves enjoying the city and sitting at Bottega Louie drinking champagne. It wasn’t long before they permanently called the Golden State home and set about looking for a restaurant location.  

Vividly colored interior of Badmaash
Jenny Kim

Father and sons drove all around Los Angeles in those early days, looking for the perfect location. “We kept each other going,” says Nakul. “It was the four of us in a 700-square foot apartment in Irvine. We were on top of each other.” After an exhaustive search of more than 50 spaces, their broker found them their current downtown location. Located on the same block as The Edison, they liked the two-level dining area and extra basement workspace. And the price was right.

With the help of architect Glen Bell of Studio DEX, the Mahendros transformed the dining space. The bold, colorful striped wall was inspired by the kaleidoscopic views of the garment district in Bombay. Upstairs, a mural of Gandhi donning bold sunglasses is painted next to Bollywood film posters. This interpretation of Mahendro’s homeland in their contemporary Los Angeles setting bridges the idea of traditional and modern, echoing the menu, and the warm personalities of the Mahendro family.

Their playful approach to Indian food and culture is something that seems to have struck a chord among the patrons at Badmaash. The Mahendros have recently announced the opening of a second location on Fairfax next to Jon & Vinny’s. “It is flattering when someone says 'Go to Badmaash! The food is really good there.' It means everything to us. You can’t describe it. You have to be here and experience it,” says Nakul. “L.A. has been really nice to us. It’s been an amazing time in L.A. for restaurants. People here are open-minded to foods from around the world and excited about different cuisines.”

Badmaash
Jenny Kim

Top image | Jenny Kim

This article was originally published May 2, 2017.

 

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