A Touch of Kitchen Alchemy
Preeti Mistry’s spicy chemistry rearranges Indian snacks and curries into refreshing reinventions.
Until we ate lunch at Juhu Beach Club, the closest I’d come to Mumbai was editing a story, for another magazine, about the Indian city’s famous street snacks. That piece focused on three popular items: bhel puri, pav bhaji, and the Bombay sandwich. And while explaining that these chaat (savory snacks) are eaten mostly at roadside stands, the writer also noted that a gourmet version of bhel puri—a treat that combines crisp puffed rice, vegetables, and chutneys—could be enjoyed in Mumbai’s luxurious Taj Mahal Palace hotel.
Juhu Beach Club is not in Mumbai; it’s next door to La Calaca Loca in that little Temescal Plaza triangle near Telegraph Avenue and 51st Street, across from Bakesale Betty. Neither is Juhu the first East Bay restaurant to bring Indian street food indoors; Vik’s Chaat and Market in West Berkeley has been serving pakoras, samosas, kathi rolls, aloo tikki, various puri, and more for many years. Nor, finally, does Juhu’s chef/owner, Preeti Mistry, aspire either to re-create a street-stall ambience or to elevate Mumbai snacks into the realm of haute cuisine and linen tablecloths.
But Mistry has created a setting (in the space that previously housed SR24) that radiates the fun of a beach retreat, thanks to a vibrant pink, yellow, and blue paint job, playful monkey-themed wallpaper, ’80s MTV-rock on the stereo, ceramic plates and tumblers that look like they’re made of paper and plastic, a clever kids’ menu, and cheerful personality-projecting servers.
Her goal may not be fine dining, but with a refreshing lack of pretense, Mistry has indeed taken snacks to a new level, still as accessible as food truck grub, but more complex and refined. She could hardly help herself, given her background, having trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London and serving executive chef stints at the cafes at de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor, Acme Bread Company, and Charlie’s Cafe on Google’s Mountain View campus. In addition, while working at Acme Chophouse, Mistry was encouraged by chef Traci Des Jardins to compete in season six of Bravo’s Top Chef. (She has said her triple-minority status—female, Indian-American, out lesbian—may have piqued the producers’ interest, but she was nonetheless eliminated after a few episodes.) The London-born, U.S.–raised chef takes her spices seriously, as evidenced by the shelves of jars in Juhu’s open kitchen. And it’s her careful blending and balancing that gives each dish its special kick and character.
Mistry is a sandwich fanatic, and she has made pavs—an Indian version of sliders—the foundation of Juhu Beach Club’s menu. The buns, from Oakland’s Starter Bakery, are small, soft, and dome-shaped, and the fillings include a spicy veggie mix (Sloppy Lil’ P, aka pav bhaji); fried potato puff, pickled red onions, and ghost pepper chutney (Vada Pav); grilled green chili chicken with tangy slaw (Chowpatty Chicken); black cardamom braised short ribs with cucumber raita (Holy Cow); pulled pork in a vindaloo barbecue sauce with cilantro yogurt slaw (Pork Vindalated); and lamb meatball in ginger tomato sauce with mint raita (Bollywood Baller). They can be had individually for $5, three for $13, in lunchtime combos of one ($7), two ($12), three ($15), or one larger-size pav ($11) with masala fries, garden lettuces, or turmeric carrot cabbage slaw. I found the pulled pork slightly watery, but the short rib was cooked and flavored perfectly, with spice notes unlike any others I’ve experienced with that meat. The Sloppy Lil’ P delivered a spicy jolt and lived up to its name, the coriander-laced potato-pea filling sloshing out of the bun with each bite.
For accompanying libations, wine drinkers are acknowledged with four varieties on tap, but more spicy-food-appropriate beverages are the half-dozen local draft beers from Drake’s, Linden Street Brewery, Trumer Pils, and Speakeasy Ales & Lagers ($6–$8), novel iced teas and lemonades ($4), and original yogurt lassis (mixed berry and the sweet-and-salty “Sassy Lassi,” all $4).
While lunch at Juhu is all about pavs, you can also order a Navi Mumbai chicken salad ($9) with grilled green chili chicken, roasted root vegetables, greens and sev (small pieces of crunchy chickpea-flour noodles); ginger- and curryleaf-spiced tomato soup ($5); and Mom’s guju chili ($5), a soul-stirring concoction of moong dal (mung beans) and spices with a dollop of cool yogurt.
Dinner offers a wider sampling of Mistry’s mastery and whimsy, including such appetizers as Desi Jacks ($4), a spicy-sweet curried riff on Cracker Jack, with popcorn, peanuts, and pistachios; paneer puffs ($6), deep-fried house-made cheese with tamarind-date chutney; and vindaloo chicken wings ($8) with Point Reyes blue cheese raita dip. I might well start every dinner with sev puri ($6), a small tostada-like treat with sev, mashed green garbanzo beans, nectarine relish, and chutneys mounded on a crisp puri cracker, and a Bombay sandwich ($7), a grilled (pressed) cheese tour de force with the added punch of cilantro chutney, beets, potatoes, pickled red onions, and spicy chaat masala.
Breaking out of the “snack” parameters, three main-course curries were available on our visit: chicken leg marinated in fresh turmeric ($14); curryleaf coriander shrimp in tomato sauce with peas ($15); and garam masala chickpea ($12). (Reflecting Mistry’s commitment to seasonal variations, an eggplant dish showed up on the menu later in the summer, as did zucchini fritters, pardon peppers and bhel puri salad.) Three of us shared the (fall-off-the bone) chicken and (plump, toothsome) shrimp curries, and they were the epitome of mild but flavorful comfort food—heaped over rice and more than we could finish.
Of course, some of us were saving room for the only dessert on the menu—Straus soft-serve vanilla ice cream ($4). Robin opted for the addition of chai-spiced candied pecans (75 cents), just one of many intriguing house-made toppings and syrups.
“It’s not rocket science,” Mistry responded when I asked her about the zesty curry sauce on the chicken, “it’s really all about fresh ingredients.” But Mistry does have chemistry going on, from her deft handling of spices and contrasting textures to her fauxhawk haircut and warm smile. And she weaves a little magic, too: I still haven’t traveled to Mumbai, but I’ve now experienced Mistry’s memory of family visits to Juhu Beach, made real and delicious through her kitchen alchemy.
Juhu Beach Club. Indian. 5179 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-652-7350, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m. Tue.–Sat. www.juhubeachclub.com.