Henri finds authentic, inexpensive Indian food in downtown Chico
Growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s and ’60s, Henri was fortunate to have been raised by transplants, mon pere having left his native France to take a position teaching film at a small college in a provincial little town. Both my parents, in fact, had a deep love and appreciation for other cultures—for music, art, literature and especially for food, of course.
On the other hand, my cultural education did have unfortunate repercussions on occasion. In fifth grade, for example, we were studying the Pilgrims, and Mrs. Bjornstadtdtdsson suggested that we re-create the very first Thanksgiving. I was thrilled, and so proud to offer to cook—and then was crushed when the whole class laughed at my contribution: tandoori chicken and biryani. Apparently not what they meant by “Indian food.”
All these years later, in fact, I can hardly go into an Indian restaurant without feeling at least a tiny pang recalling that morning, though my unpleasant memories of the day are tempered in part by my recollection of those knickers and the pumps with the little silver buckles. All of which came back to me the other day when Colette and I first stopped in at Gogi’s Café, the new Indian restaurant in downtown Chico across from Chico State.
As with most national cuisines, it’s easy to oversimplify a definition of Indian food. The country’s widely diverse geography, ethnicities, and religions—not to mention its colonial and international-trade history—make for a complex and equally diverse cuisine.
That said, there are some generalizations you can make about Indian food. For example, it tends to be spicy, many dishes using such distinctive spices as cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, cumin, chili peppers and turmeric. Typical ingredients include rice, lentils, various beans, cucumber, yogurt, chicken, beef, and—near the coast—fish.
Owned and operated by Gogi and Vinay Kumar, Gogi’s cafeteria-style restaurant, open for five months now, offers a basic menu of Indian meat and vegetarian dishes in a comfortable high-ceilinged dining room with 15 or so tables and even a couch with a coffee table.
Appetizers ($4.95) include vegetable samosa (potatoes with peas, garbanzo beans and chutney) and bhelpuri chaat (puffed rice with onions, potatoes, tomatoes and cilantro). Entrees ($5.95) are served in a large bowl over basmati rice and include chicken tikka masala (a blend usually including garlic, ginger, onions and chile paste), palak tofu (spinach simmered with tofu and herbs and spices), and daal (lentil soup). Gogi’s Special is chicken marinated in yogurt, ginger and other spices, clay-oven roasted and served over mixed greens. You can also get Indian desserts and several specialty drinks. No beer or wine is available. (The full menu is online at gogiscafe.webs.com.)
On our first visit, we started with the savory chaat (crispy wheat-and-potato “dumplings” with chutney, yogurt and masala), and then I had the chicken tikka (marinated in yogurt and spices), and Colette had the channa masala (garbanzo beans). Everything was very good, especially the chicken tikka, the marinade moistening the rice.
I went back solo a couple of days later. Vinay was ladling something orange out of large cooler—looked almost like a melted orange sherbet—and into large glasses. I thought I might order one for dessert. Turned out it was lassi, a thick mango-and-yogurt drink, which he said was a popular drink for hot days. “Very refreshing,” he said. I ordered one, along with the rogan josh, the special, a Kashmiri dish made with goat braised in onions, yogurt, garlic, ginger, with cloves, bay leaves and cardamom (more typically, it’s made with lamb or beef). The lassi was delicious, wonderfully refreshing as Vinay had promised. The rogan josh was good, too, although I was kind of surprised at the number of small bones (at least five or six pieces) that I had to pick out.
Even though Gogi’s Café is open in the morning, they don’t offer a breakfast menu yet. (“Soon,” Vinay said.) As of now, they serve only Indian teas and coffees in the morning, although you can watch the Kumars prepping and cooking for the day just behind the counter.