Mayura and Pijja Palace approach Indian cuisine from opposite angles: one staunchly traditional, one staunchly not. Some lessons from both in the art of preserving customs and shattering them.
“At the top is Wolfgang Puck,” says Padmini Aniyan, pointing at a row of photographs plastered on the wall of her Culver City restaurant, Mayura. “Then the former president of India. That girl in the middle is the new Miss Universe. Next to her—John Lithgow.” Aniyan’s pride shines like the glare of the flash on Lithgow’s head. Since opening in 2005, Mayura has become the preeminent destination for South Indian cuisine in Southern California, courting regulars, many of them Indian immigrants like Aniyan herself, from Orange County, San Diego, and Hollywood’s farthest flung hills.
“This one man used to come here a lot,” says Aniyan, “always between three and five p.m., when it’s usually very slow. He’d grab a beer from the cooler, sit in a booth, and order one chicken tikka masala. He’d eat and go. He was never very well dressed. One day, a couple was sitting here—American guests—and they said, ‘Do you know him?’” Aniyan said she knew him as a regular. “They said, ‘He’s a very big celebrity, just like Amitabh Bachchan in India.’ That’s how I found out he was Jack Nicholson.”
Jack would’ve done better to order Aniyan’s Kerala chicken curry, redolent with spices ferried in from the farms of India’s southernmost state, a Mayura speciality destined to haunt your dreams until you get in the car to go back to the Culver City strip mall where it came from, traffic be damned. “Chicken tikka masala is available everywhere,” says Aniyan. “Our chicken curry, you cannot get just like that.”
“Here, we are not doing any fusion. We want to keep it just like this”
How did you end up opening Mayura?
My husband and I came here as immigrants in 2003. I had a Ph.D. in marketing and was working as a professor of business management, but my husband’s family was here and they had applied for visas for us. They were living in Culver City. We were not aware of any other place in America. We came to Culver City, we stayed in Culver City. My husband had a hotel in India. He was familiar with the official side, and my sister is a great chef—she and her husband still supervise the kitchen. We take care of the front.
I suppose knowing business management came in handy.
Yes. We have a number of family members also working here. When we came as new immigrants, we had to do something to get jobs for everyone. That’s also why we decided to start our own business.
You got a lot of regulars because of your lunch buffet—
It was very popular. We had to discontinue it because of Covid. Eighteen months, no dining in. We signed up with all the online delivery companies so somehow, we survived. So many things helped us, like the neighborhood council. Now, we’re doing great, we’re getting back to normal, even though there is no buffet, it’s still busy. We arrange thali meals that have a little bit of several dishes, so people are happy. We are the only Kerala restaurant in Southern California, so people continue to come.
What makes Kerala cuisine—say, your Kerala chicken curry—different from the food from another part of India?
The spices we use. It’s a complex blend: cardamom, turmeric, chilies, star anise, clove, cinnamon, fennel seeds, coriander. Kerala is the land of spices. And we get them fresh also, from farms in Munnar that send us the spices directly. It introduces a great flavor.
Very different from what you’ll get in the grocery store here.
Of course. Those stay so many months on the shelf, even years. We use only spices that are grown in Kerala. You can feel the difference.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
We all love fish. We eat a lot of fish curry. It’s made just like how we make in Kerala, by using the tamarind called kudampuli. The botanical name is Garcinia Cambogia, it has a lot of medicinal properties, also. It’s what makes the fish curry unique. We eat it with appam, which are savory pancakes that we make on the grill with fermented rice. We make them soft and fluffy, and they’re very popular.
When someone orders chicken tikka masala, do you ever want to tell them, “Hey, why don’t you try this other dish instead?”
Of course, and a lot of our non-Indian customers end up trying it. We are preserving a Kerala tradition that they won’t find anywhere else. Here, we are not doing any fusion. We want to keep it just like this.
You could be forgiven for not expecting much from a sports bar that shares a parking lot with a Comfort Inn, but in the case of Pijja Palace, it would be your loss. Opened in May, Pijja—pronounced pee-jah, an homage to the way at least some Indian uncles pronounce the quintessential American pie—is an Indian restaurant that unflinchingly challenges the notion of what an Indian restaurant should be. Here, pizzas come tavern-style, thin, crispy, and burnt at the edges, laden with toppings from the subcontinent: chicken tikka, Goan sausage, a delightfully sweat-inducing sauce of green chili chutney and masala. Pijja Palace also slings Indian-inspired pastas, cocktails, and soft serve, doled out against the soothing backdrop of dusty rose-colored booths and green-tiled tables. But what may be most notable about the restaurant is the way it turned into a hub for outré, ascendant South Asian Americans pretty much the moment it opened its doors, a sign that first-generation kids and their ilk had no haunt to call home, until now. “They’ve been hiding in the hills of Silver Lake,” owner Avish Naran says. “I didn’t know that there were this many brown folk in Silver Lake, or L.A., at all.”
How did you get into the restaurant business?
I went to design school in Laguna Beach. I really wanted to do streetwear, fashion-type stuff, then I realized that it just wasn’t for me. I was watching a lot of “Chef’s Night Out” on Munchies. I was like, “This is such a cool life to live. I want to do this,” so I went to culinary school. You should’ve seen my parents when I told them I wanted to go to culinary school. It was like I told them that I’d murdered someone. They thought I’d end up as a cook at Denny’s—which, by the way, is a really hard job. I’d hire a short order cook from Denny’s in a heartbeat.
I went to the Napa Valley Cooking School, where I had a great instructor. She encouraged us to work on side projects. I wanted to make my own Sriracha; she let me do it, it was fun. My end goal was always to open a restaurant. I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do but I knew it would be something Indian. I staged at a bunch of restaurants: Camden Place, Roux, Indian Accent. I wanted to soak everything in, learn, and see how other chefs were thinking.
I worked at Mourad, the Michelin-starred, San Francisco Moroccan restaurant, right after culinary school. That’s when I decided that old fine dining is not for me. I was in the kitchen looking out at a bunch of people in suits, thinking: this is ridiculous. None of these people give a fuck about what I’m doing. I’d rather cook for people who have, like, March Madness brackets than stock portfolios. Tweezer food was not what I wanted to do. There’s nobody around my age—30—that looks like me, doing something like this.
I saw your Tweet—
I say some dumb shit on Twitter.
This was the pinned one, about how L.A. doesn’t have the Indian dining scene that New York and San Francisco have. You pledged to build it yourself. Did something in particular prompt you to say that, or did you put it out there after the wheels for this were already in motion?
Oh, the wheels for this have been in motion for five or six years. I guess I just meant, I don’t know…one day I was like, “There’s just no cool Indian place to eat here.” I don’t know if you were looking for something deeper than that.
How did you go about developing the menu?
My executive chef and I—Miles Shorey, he came from Roberta’s—came up with the menu together. We wanted to do something that was fun for the diner but still fun for the chef. Look at the tandoori spaghetti dish, for instance. We don’t have a tandoor back there. But through R&D, we figured out how to take the flavors of a tandoor and put it into pasta. We smoke chilies, we char the lime, and we put it in the bowl. I’ve always liked Jersey-style pizza. It’s my favorite style pizza and nobody ever talks about it, except people from Jersey. So that’s why we do that style here. We actually cook it in what looks to be a Chicago-style pizza pan, and then we take the sauce all the way to the end, which is how you get the burned bits. A lot of the food and beverages here are just built off of classic American dishes people are familiar with, like the malai rigatoni, which has been super popular. What’s that restaurant in New York that does the vodka rigatoni that everybody likes?
Carbone. We just did an Indian version of it. Even in the drink program, you look at our pata-quiri, it’s just daiquiri specs but we subbed out simple syrup for tamarind syrup. Our old fashioned is traditional, but we built it around the flavors of a laddu. It’s got cardamom, jaggery.
And then there’s the sports bar part of it—are you a big sports fan?
I have to be. This is L.A., the greatest sports city in the world. There’s always a team, somewhere, in some championship.
Were you inspired by any existing restaurants?
I was really inspired by Tandoor Chophouse, in London. An Indian steakhouse—I thought that was a pretty cool concept. Besides that, I found myself looking more at Italian restaurants, looking at pasta builds and how to make them Indian without, like, offending anybody. Well, I used to feel that way. Now I don’t give a shit if I offend anyone.
Has anyone been offended?
Not that I know of. In our short time being alive, the only negative review we’ve received was from somebody who didn’t even eat here. He didn’t like the table where we sat him. We were packed, there was nothing we could do, so he just left. He gave us all zeros on Resy. Things like that are bound to happen, though.
“I found myself looking more at Italian restaurants, looking at pasta builds and how to make them Indian without, like, offending anybody.”
How did you decide on this neighborhood, this space?
I grew up a couple blocks from here, in Echo Park. The motel next door is my dad’s. When you can get a good deal on rent, you go for it. But also, it’s kind of unassuming, being next to a Comfort Inn. People aren’t expecting to have good food when they walk in here. My parents totally get it, now.
I think the design makes it clear that this is not your typical, divey sports bar.
Those words were explicitly in my design brief. I didn’t want it to be dark and dingy. No sticky floors. Our designer, Cassandra Smith, did a phenomenal job. I’m definitely going to use her for future projects.
Do you have a future project in mind?
I have 17.