Tärka Indian Kitchen CEO and co-founder Tinku Saini may call his small chain of restaurants fast-casual, but he wants to be perfectly clear: "It’s not the Chipotle version of Indian food," he says. In fact, Saini prefers to compare his business to a less expensive version of Houston's beloved Pondicheri. Food is made to order in an open kitchen, but dishes are conceived to take around 10 minutes to prepare and ring up at no more than $10.
The original Tärka opened in Austin in 2009, a sequel to a more standard Indian restaurant, Clay Pit Contemporary Indian Cuisine. There are now three Austin locations, as well as one in San Antonio and another in Round Rock. Soon, there will be two in greater Houston. The first will be at 721 W. 19th Street in the Heights, one more hot addition to the corner of Shepherd and 19th. Saini says he hopes to unveil that restaurant as soon as late February. Another, at Springwoods Village in Spring, will follow.
As CEO of an Austin-based business, Saini says he sees the success of Torchy's Tacos as an inspiration—in fact, both of his Houston-area restaurants will open near a Torchy's. "That being said, a taco is much different from Indian food," he admits. But he claims a lack of South Asian options in the Heights doesn't scare him. "I love the urban density and the varied demographic," he says of the Heights. "People sometimes call it Little Austin. That appealed to us."
What can diners in Little Austin expect? High-quality ingredients, for one. Tärka serves only grass-fed lamb and all-natural, free-range chicken. In Austin, Tärka is a certified "green" restaurant. Saini hopes to follow suit in Houston with all environmentally friendly packaging, energy-efficient lighting and (depending on his landlord's tolerance) composting.
The casual service means ordering at the counter, but it doesn't mean diners can't relax with beer and wine. Many dishes are vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free and are clearly labeled as such. The menu is North Indian, with an emphasis on Punjabi classics popular with Americans such as chicken tikka masala, korma and aloo gobi. Breads, including garlic naan and roti, are made in-house and baked fresh.
Saini says that besides the tikka masala, the most popular dishes are saag paneer, biryani and chicken and lamb kebabs served with rice, sautéed vegetables and mint-tamarind chutney. Lassis include typical mango, but also strawberry and guava flavors. That fusion continues with sandwiches called "naaninis" served with salad or masala fries.