Some of Portland’s best Indian food comes in an $11 happy hour combo. Bhuna, a sparsely decorated fast-casual spot in Nob Hill by Cinema 21, serves bowls of pork vindaloo, Chettinad chicken, and Kashmiri vegetables with a beer for $11 daily between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. The Indian restaurant seems like the classic Portland equation for success: Counter-service dining priced low and executed at a high level, with a popular chef at the helm. Chef and owner Deepak Kaul also test drove Bhuna as a successful “Kashmiri soul food” pop-up on the east side, where it raked in positive press, including winning Kaul Eater Portland’s Chef of the Year title in 2018.
And yet, according to Kaul, the restaurant struggled for most of its first year. Mere months into opening Bhuna, the chef was flabbergasted: He was grasping to make ends meet, while other Northwest Portland openings, like Bar West and Life of Pie, were doing extremely well. What had gone wrong?
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Kaul has never been very good at doing what’s expected of him. The child of Kashmiri immigrants in New Jersey, he was on track to become a doctor, with a pre-med biology degree from Boston University and research experience at Tufts and Harvard Universities. That didn’t last long.
“Being of Indian descent in the ’80s and ’90s, it was pretty, you know, ‘You gotta be a doctor or engineer.’ ‘Lawyer’ wasn’t even really a thing yet,” he says. “I didn’t really question that stuff until I was in it. I was just playing along to get along, and then at some point it just wasn’t clicking.”
He jumped ship on medicine in the ’90s, to his parents’ chagrin (he jokes that they came around to his career as a chef sometime in the last year). His culinary journey started with a few odd gigs in Cambridge, Massachusetts — baking, for one, followed a multi-year stint at the now-defunct Blue Room, one of Julia Child’s favorite spots. When he tired of New England, he headed west. He landed in San Francisco with a few kitchen gigs under his belt and left with an impressive resume that included French food institution Jardinière.
Kaul wanted to dig into his heritage, incorporating family recipes and giving them the zhuzh of his culinary training. Still, he wasn’t looking to open the kind of Indian restaurant he saw again and again throughout the country, nor was he hoping to helm something tweezer-y and pretentious. Instead, he wanted something scalable and accessible: Well-executed, creative Indian soul food, true to his experience, in a super-casual package.
“I didn’t want a fancy restaurant,” he says, shrugging. “I’m trying to make money and save for my kids and retire… Around the world there are five billion McDonald’s. What do they serve? They serve six fucking things.”
Arriving in Portland, Kaul went the newly popular route to restaurantville: As with other major players like Southern supper club Mae and Indonesian destination Gado Gado, Kaul decided to introduce himself to Portland with a pop-up. On Monday nights, he’d make bowls of rogan josh and kohlrabi at Kerns’ Culmination Brewing. It quickly built an audience. “Those collards are one of my favorite new dishes I’ve tried in months—all funk and comfort, the feeling of easing into a ’70s couch cushion,” former Willamette Week reporter Matthew Korfhage wrote in March 2018.
Within a year after starting his pop-up, Kaul was opening the doors of his own restaurant. He wanted to regionalize and decolonize the food he grew up on, food he wasn’t seeing on the extremely rare occasion that he hit an Indian buffet. His menu focused on eclectic sides — mushroom naan, chickpea-battered calamari, rich kohlrabi, and collards — that supplement the rice bowls that earned him a fan base. His stunning lotus root fries are like a more robust french fry, with an added burst of flavor from the cilantro-mint chutney they’re served with. His chickpea-battered calamari are an outside-the-box take on classic fried squid. But the menu’s real stars are, indeed, the rice bowls.
With vegetarian, vegan, and meat options, each bowl comes with aromatic rice turned gold by turmeric. The Goan pork vindaloo is a favorite for those who like their food with a bit of heat, with tender pork in a rich sauce; the Chettinad chicken is milder, but no less impressive, with chicken bits simmering in creamy tomato and coconut milk; and the Kashmiri tomato and eggplant bowl appeals to vegans and even staunch omnivores with its heartiness and bold flavors. Still, the most signature of his dishes is the lamb rogan josh, which earned the restaurant acclaim from its time as a pop-up through to its current incarnation.
Yet — as is often the case in the restaurant world — everything didn’t go exactly as planned. While Kaul knew opening a restaurant wouldn’t be smooth sailing, the first-year challenges took him by surprise. Six months in, he was worried he might have to close the restaurant before 2020 began.
“Have you seen the movie Big Night? That’s where we are with Indian food,” he says, referencing Stanley Tucci’s 1996 dramedy about an Italian restaurant in New Jersey whose hyper-authentic cuisine puts it in dire financial straits. “I knew it’d be hard, but I didn’t realize it’d be this hard. It’d been like, ‘It can’t get worse.’ And then oh, it got worse. ‘Can’t get worse.’ Kept getting worse.”
In the summer of 2019, Bhuna was losing money. It started strong, but Kaul says he struggled to maintain a customer base. He’s been told that the food is too expensive, or that he’s not making “real” Indian food.
“The word ‘curry’ is not on the menu,” he says. “It’s not a cookie-cutter restaurant. The space, the music, the lights, everything — it’s about where I come from.”
Even Bhuna’s decor was deliberately designed to resist pandering stereotypes. “It’s not fetishized,” Kaul says. “There’s no tchotchkes and shit on the walls that say, ‘Indian restaurant.’” The blue-and-white dining room is decorated with bright abstract prints by local designer Aaron Draplin. The soundtrack, too, is light on “sitar, or whatever the fuck that is,” opting instead for a sort of dad-band survey: Journey, Elton John, Bryan Adams. “This is the music I grew up listening to,” Kaul says. “I want to break this mold that we’re still in 1974.”
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Beyond these aesthetic concerns, Kaul cites a number of potentially detrimental factors: opening in the winter, for one. Switching from an Eastside pop-up to a Westside restaurant, for another. He worries that by crossing the Willamette, he inadvertently alienated the base he’d built at Culmination.
Now, months later, things are looking up again: Kaul’s business is back on track, and he’s even hopping over to Culmination spin-off brewery Ruse Brewing with a semi-regular Friday pop-up. Regardless, Kaul knows he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing, despite attendant doubts. He says he’s grateful for Portland’s tight-knit culinary community, the world-class beer, and the basic fact that the city has provided him an opportunity to run his own restaurant.
“The highs are pretty frickin’ amazing, man,” he says, recounting a time when two Indian kids wandered into the shop and thanked him with wide eyes and a still-potent sense of disbelief.
“When somebody tells you, who’s Indian or whatever, ‘That was amazing, thank you for doing this,’ it carries you for days or weeks on end,” Kaul says. “When you see someone that looks like you doing something different, you’re like, ‘Oh. It’s possible to do that.’ Not everyone’s gonna be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. It might not make you money, it might not make you famous, but at least you’ll be doing what you want to do.”