Meet the Mahendros, a Los Angeles restaurant family with big personalities and bold ambitions. Plus, the product is dope.
We’re the only Indian restaurant that isn’t a quote-unquote Indian restaurant,” Nakul Mahendro says of Badmaash, which he runs with his younger brother, Arjun, and their father, Pawan. “No burgundy carpet, no Indian sitar music, no bright LCD screens, no sculptures of gods.”
If you’d like to understand how this brash, critically acclaimed downtown Los Angeles restaurant came to be, you might want to start with the day two Indian dudes from Canada went to a California fast-food joint and discussed New York hip-hop.
“I still remember we were at an In-N-Out parking lot, talking about what was to become Badmaash,” Arjun recalls. “We didn’t have a name at the time. I asked Nakul what type of music are we going to play. And he goes, ‘Butter chicken, Biggie Smalls.’ He was quiet, staring at me. And I’m like, ‘Yo, that’s not going to work.’”
But Nakul believed in his vision, and what was all a dream has become reality.
Badmaash’s decor is headlined by bright oranges, pinks, and blues. There’s a Pop Art portrait of Gandhi wearing hipster-chic Ray-Ban Wayfarers. The Mahendros do indeed blast old-school hip-hop at their restaurant. But they’re from Toronto, so there’s a lot of Drake on the speakers, too.
Beyond a handful of traditional Indian dishes like lamb vindaloo and saag paneer, Badmaash serves a spiced lamb burger and righteous mashups like chicken tikka poutine and chili cheese naan. The Mahendros don’t offer free rice, they don’t have garlic naan, and they don’t apologize for who they are.
“When we first opened up [in 2013], everybody’s like, ‘Why don’t I get rice with my entrée?’” Arjun says.
Customers also complained about the bread selection, how their favorite Indian restaurants offered the option of spice levels, and how other places were all-you-can-eat.
“You know what, yo, fuck your favorite Indian restaurant,” Arjun says, recalling the early detractors.
“Because we aren’t that,” Nakul adds.
This is such a statement of purpose for Nakul and Arjun that they use the preferred hashtag of #fuckyourfavoriteindianrestaurant on Instagram. (Attitude is a favored ingredient: The brothers, along with Eggslut boss Alvin Cailan, host the highly opinionated Super Amazing Restaurant Show podcast, in which they speak candidly about how bad service pisses them off, the challenging economics of restaurants and the tipping model, Yelp, customers who think a restaurant is a perfectly fine place for a steamy makeout session, and the challenges of sexual-harassment training in an industry that celebrates machismo.) But all the swagger in the world would mean fuck-all if the food weren’t good.
And that leads us to the dishes at Badmaash. They are great. Outstanding, actually. The cooking is nuanced and doesn’t overwhelm your palate. The curries aren’t too heavy or, with the exception of the ghost chile lamb vindaloo, intensely spicy. The fragrant rice is cooked perfectly. The mashups, like the chicken tikka poutine with masala fries, cheese curds and beef gravy, are rich but harmonious. You can feast at Badmaash and not feel like you have to take a nap afterward.
This is modern food from a chef with classical training: Pawan learned French and Italian technique at a Bombay culinary school and then eventually used his skills to make rarefied Indian cuisine. Jaipur Grille in Toronto was his upscale Indian restaurant that became wildly popular after feared critic Joanne Kates raved about it.
“It was a glorious review,” Nakul remembers. “The title was ‘Jaipur Grille Transcends Curry Clichés.’ That’s exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to change what people knew of Indian food. We want to put all these negative stereotypes on a pedestal and blow them up. The stereotypes are, you’re going to feel sick, it’s too spicy, it’s too heavy, you’re going to have the shits.”
Despite its youthful energy, Badmaash isn’t about scenesters screwing around. (Like they’ve done with other media outlets, Nakul and Arjun refuse to reveal their ages to TASTE. But they do tell me they’re three years apart and that they “definitely aren’t fucking millennials.”) The Mahendros are here to make Indian food fun and unintimidating, to source premium ingredients like hormone-free grass-fed beef and free-range lamb, to pickle seasonal vegetables, to let you know that there are medicinal qualities in many spices they use (everybody who’s noticed the turmeric-milk trend knows this already), to emphasize that cooking Indian food at home is something you can manage if you’ve ever cooked Thai, Mexican, or Northern Italian. Butter chicken, with its creamy tomato sauce, isn’t so different from a Bolognese.
So I head over to the Mahendro family home for a butter chicken lesson. Arjun, bearded and wearing a pink T-shirt, jeans, and white sneakers, has the relaxed vibe down: After greeting me, he quickly coerces me into drinking sparkling wine with him at 11 a.m. Nakul, also bearded but with a shaved head, shows up a few minutes later, sporting an equally casual all-black wardrobe. (The Mahendros all say they love being in Southern California, where you can dress down all the time, something they realized years ago when Pawan dressed up for a business meeting and wound up sitting in front of someone who looked like he was on his way to the beach.) Arjun puts on a playlist that starts with the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” (and over the course of our visit also includes Drake and Punjabi Toronto rapper Nav) before heading outside with his brother to grill chicken.
Pawan stays inside to make the sauce. He looks dignified wearing a crisp blue button-down shirt that I worry he might stain, but he’s totally in his carefree happy place as he sautés garlic, ginger, and serrano peppers before adding tomatoes. He seems, well, fatherly—both friendly and pedagogical—as he explains to me that he uses plum tomatoes year-round to keep the dish consistent. In addition to finishing the sauce, he prepares a side dish of cauliflower and peas. His shirt stays completely clean.
One key to his butter chicken, Pawan shows me, is using cold butter.
“It’s the balance of the cream [in the sauce] and the butter solids,” he says. “The balance of those two has a beautiful flavor.”
Growing up, he cooked with clarified butter (ghee), but that has a “nuttiness” he doesn’t want in butter chicken. Pawan had a revelation years ago while working in an Italian restaurant.
“We would add a knob of cold butter to the pasta right at the end,” he says. “It became a flavor enhancer. To me, it’s like having strawberries with champagne. That’s what butter does to food.”
“Cold butter makes the sauce velvety and silky and smooth, especially tomato sauces,” Nakul adds. “If you use melted butter or ghee, it’s not going to have the same effect.”
Butter chicken is nostalgic party food for the Mahendros. At Huntspoint, a restaurant in an industrial part of Mississauga, a suburb just outside Toronto, Pawan served deli sandwiches, burgers, and fries but also threw massive Indian bashes. On New Year’s Eve, 350 people would come to pound butter chicken while a middle-aged DJ grumpily ignored song requests but still had enough Bollywood bangers to keep the crowd on the dance floor until 3 a.m.
“I remember being with Dad days before [each party],” says Nakul, who was a teenager at the time. “He would tell us we were his sous chefs, but really we were just young kids dicking around.”
At Badmaash, the Mahendros serve butter chicken as an entrée and also a filling for samosas. Plus, they have an off-menu fried-chicken burger in a spicier version of butter chicken sauce.
Arjun came up with the idea of a butter chicken samosa when he was in high school. He remembers cooks who worked at his dad’s restaurant telling him to get the fuck out of the kitchen with his dumbass idea. Undeterred, he made a butter chicken samosa himself, which his parents loved.
Lesson learned: Impress your family, and everything will work out in the end.
The Mahendros all agree that Pawan, who despises political correctness, is a tough critic and the member of the family most prone to talking smack.
“Dad doesn’t give a shit,” Nakul says. “He’s the nicest, sweetest, kindest human being, and he doesn’t mean to come off as coarse, but he’s just to the point.”
Badmaash is about confidence, being true to who you are and always making the effort to prepare food the right way. It’s about looking at the future while savoring the past.
As for the future, the Mahendros have secured a location on Fairfax Avenue for their next restaurant. They’re still figuring out what it will become. They’ve been inspired by the freewheeling nature of their many meals at downtown chef Josef Centeno’s restaurants, especially Bäco Mercat, which serves a wholly original taco/gyro/sandwich hybrid that’s pure L.A.
Whatever they do next, Nakul believes that “a restaurant should give you the same experience of a home-cooked meal you share with family and friends.”
“The food we are serving at [Badmaash] is not commercialized,” Pawan says. “It’s home-cooked food, exactly the same way we do it at home.”
There are few things that make the Mahendros happier than seeing young Indians bring their parents to Badmaash.
“It’s validation that we’re good enough for your parents; our parents are very important to us,” Nakul says. “We want to use Badmaash to connect with other Indians that are young and doing their thing—music, art, film, writing, restaurants especially. We’re breaking the mold of what quote-unquote you’re supposed to be doing—doctor, lawyer, engineer. That’s exactly what Badmaash is in its essence.”