“We don’t have the Indian food scene that New York and San Francisco have, so I’m just going to build it myself.”
Those are the words of a year-old pinned tweet by Avish Naran, the creator of Pijja Palace, a Silver Lake spot that calls itself a sports bar and serves the best Native American food you’ll find in Los Angeles.
Not everyone wants to hear that the Indian food scene in LA isn’t great the way it is; fewer still want to hear this message compared to other cities. Los Angeles is Los Angeles, and most Angelenos will quickly remind you that it’s not trying to be any other city than itself.
But for a city known for fostering ethnic enclaves and supporting communities that serve the same ingredients and flavor profiles in restaurants as they would eat at home, Indian cuisine remains a sore point for many.
There is no Indian equivalent of Guelaguetza, Jitlada or Cheong Won Buffet, for example, and there are few places you will find in LA where you can eat the quality of Indian food you might find in the bay, New York or New Jersey.
Fewer spots still feature Indian cuisine in regional specificity or even with an Indian audience in mind. You are more likely to eat at restaurants offering the same spice blend with the same tomato and cream base, adding paneer, chicken, or vegetables.
Although there are many wonderful Indian restaurants with even more wonderful people working to make them work in Los Angeles – Namaste Spiceland in the wooded hills, Mayura in the palm trees, and imli in Whittier, to name a few – in a town where the food is stupidly good, we’re still a long way from having the thriving Indian food scene that Angelenos deserve.
But as someone who loves this city with all my heart, who has shaped his entire career around a love of Native American culture and food, and who believes that the Indian food scene has the potential to be so much more than it is now, the opening of Pijja Palace gives me hope.
The dishes on their menu are unlike anything I’ve tasted at LA Chopped Salad with Chaat Dressing. Okra fries. Dosa onion rings. Rigatoni Malai and green chutney pijja. (The last course also comes with a homemade cheese and spice blend of fenugreek leaves, parmesan cheese, chili flakes and oregano.)
The pijja, both the dish and the restaurant itself, comes from an Indianized pronunciation of pizza, where the z softens to j. And the pizza itself is delicious – a thin, crispy crust, with flavorful sauces that showcase an array of Indian spices, and enough cheese to put a jar full of Lactaid to work.
“The name was just meant to be as a meme or as a jokey concept. I was never really too serious,” Naran said. “I put palace in the name also as a simple troll move. There are so many like Delhi Palace, Taj Palace. […] I’m a pretty prankish guy, so I wanted to keep it kind of fun, you know? »
For cocktails, you can try the pata-quiri, made with rooh Afza, or the chai whiskey sour for something sweeter, or the old-fashioned jaggery (Naran’s favourite) for something more balanced and of citrus fruits. Expect future iterations of old-school jaggery to be grease-washed in ghee.
With pizza and pasta being two of the food program’s main highlights, it’s easy to confuse the restaurant with Indian Italian cuisine. But rather than representing some kind of fusion, the menu is distinctly Native American – emblematic of Naran’s own history and relationship with food.
“It’s weird, you know. You are in the middle of a lot of things. The restaurant is exactly how I was raised,” Naran said.
“I’m pretty far from India. My cooking experience is just taking all the data I learned growing up as an American Indian in Los Angeles.”
Naran himself doesn’t have close emotional ties to India and didn’t necessarily set out to create a world that represents all of India in the Pijja Palace.
“I cook from what I learned at home, from what I learned from outside, from culinary school. I just try to think of things as a human being”, a- he declared.
The restaurant is not a love letter to culture, whether Indian, Indian or LA, nor does it try to be. “I don’t know if you were hoping for Anthony Bourdain or anything,” he told me.
I was not, for the record. As someone who loves being Native American, loves pizza and Indian food, and wants an LA food scene that celebrates both, I’m just glad Pijja Palace is here. But it is clear that not all American Indians feel the same way.
A one-star review by Jaya L. on Pijja Palace’s Yelp page reads: “If you are desi or like Indian food, DO NOT COME HERE. The food completely lacked flavor, aromas and authenticity.
Calling the food “extremely bland and unpleasant” and “tasteless and whitewashed”, the reviewer adds “although this is supposed to be a fusion restaurant, the Indian spices and ingredients are not emphasized or embraced at all” .
I am quite far from India. My cooking experience simply takes all the data I learned growing up as an American Indian in Los Angeles…
— Avish Naran, creator of Pijja Palace
This speaks to a pattern that Pijja Palace sees, in which some American Indians take offense to the restaurant’s food, name, and more. Of course, not all negative attention is worth acknowledging, but it clearly highlights the tension between Indians and Native Americans – or even the tensions that exist between Native Americans and Native Americans. America – who worry about who Pijja Palace is and who it is for, how we are represented and before whom.
That’s a valid concern for American Indians: wanting to be fairly represented, or at the very least not wanting to be misrepresented or disrespected in a country that doesn’t always allow it. But it’s clear Naran is trying to create space for himself and his loved ones to eat what they want to eat, watch what they want to watch, and listen to what they want to listen to. It does not flatter the white public, nor the Indian public. He just creates a space that is true to him.
On Instagram, Naran exposed his point of view. “I have the unique perspective of owning a restaurant that other people think they have to define. Here’s the trick. Don’t.”
From food and drink menus, to R&B played while guests dine (I heard a Bryson Tiller song playing on my first visit), to playful art in bathrooms celebrating Indian athletes and Americans, Naran cooks and creates for himself – a notion not uncommon among creatives in the restaurant world, but certainly something that seems rarer on the Indian culinary scene in LA.
I have the unique perspective of owning a restaurant that other people feel they need to define. Here’s the trick. Don’t.
— Avish Naran, creator of Pijja Palace
“It’s a sports bar in the parking lot of a Comfort Inn that I made for myself, my friends, and my family. We cook versions of the foods I loved to eat, growing up as an Indian kid in Los Angeles. If you’re coming down with us, all are welcome in this palace. If you feel like I don’t check the boxes for your personal “merger” or anything else, the option of stay at home exists.
Naran has created the kind of space he’d love to frequent himself, but couldn’t find in LA From the spices in the dishes to the sodas on the drinks menu to the postcard that accompanies every bill, Pijja Palace is less self-indulgent than deeply personal, earnest and intimate. He is an artist and creator who shares his work simply because it is what gives him joy.
“I don’t really look at other restaurants to see what they’re doing anymore. My creative process is something very unique to me,” Naran said. And on the Indian food scene in Los Angeles, he promises, “I hope it gets better. If it doesn’t, I will.”
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