When he first decided to become a chef, it took Deepak Saxena, the owner of celebrated food cart Desi PDX, a decade to open his food cart. He was cooking at festivals like Burning Man, feeding crowds of fellow campers, when he realized that what he truly wanted to do was cook for a living. “That was when I was 30,” he says, “but it took me until I was 40 to actually jump on it and decide to do this.”
It was worth the wait: Desi PDX’s food cart is distinctive within Portland’s food scene, an amalgamation of Saxena’s personal culinary history with dishes like cardamom chai chicken and masala pulled pork. Since it opened in 2015, Saxena’s cart has become a stalwart among North Portland diners, who stop by the Prost Marketplace pod for vegan thali plates and crunchy chickpeas. After a recent appearance on the Netflix food show Somebody Feed Phil, Desi’s popularity — and sales — have skyrocketed.
Soon, people will be able to find a new facet of Saxena’s food within a new restaurant. Masala Lab, set to open in mid-July within the former Horn of Africa space, will specialize in brunch dishes like pakora waffles and shrimp and grits with coconut milk polenta and shrimp tikka mole. The restaurant will top dishes with eggs fried in ghee, and sell pastries like cardamom-rose-pistachio chocolate chip cookies. And, like Desi PDX, the restaurant will be 100 percent gluten-free.
The Oregonian first reported on the incoming restaurant, as well as the closing of Saxena’s other business, Chaat Wallah. The sandwich business served dishes like paneer-and-cheddar-topped “nacho chaat” and spiced lamb sloppy joes within the 503 Distilling building. While Chaat Wallah has closed within that building, Saxena hopes to open Chaat Wallah at a new location down the line. “We weren’t seeing the numbers we wanted to see, especially compared to Desi,” he says. “The brand is not dead; it’s just paused right now.”
Instead, Saxena is focused on opening Masala Lab. The restaurant will feature Indian art on the walls and overarching “urban jungle street vibes,” in the words of Saxena’s assistant. He’s still developing the menu, but is playing with his favorite diner staples as a jumping off point. For example, the coconut-fried lamb chop, slathered in buttermilk curry, is his version of a chicken-fried steak. “My favorite thing to get at a greasy diner is a chicken-fried steak,” Saxena says. “I wanted to do an Indian take on that.”
The restaurant will also sell beverages made by Indian-owned businesses: Kaveri Coffee, which sources its beans from Southern India, will serve as the restaurant’s drip coffee, while California’s Naidu Wines supplies the restaurant’s wine. Over time, Masala Lab will begin to offer dinner service, also hosting pop-ups from other chefs of color and more casual board-games-and-snack nights. “For me, food is all about bringing people together,” Saxena says. “I want us to figure out other things to do with the space.”
Masala Lab will open at 5237 NE MLK Blvd.