Rural southern Utah is cowboy country, and with it comes a deserved reputation of being a meat and potatoes kind of place. So after a recent three-day hiking trip in Bryce Canyon National Park, when Kim Johnson saw a sign advertising a Tandoori Taqueria, she pulled over immediately.
Johnson and her family, who live in Salt Lake City, are vegetarian.
"We've eaten a lot of Subway sandwiches [this trip]," she says, laughing. "And a lot of large side salads because it's a pretty meaty environment here."
Inside, the family grinned as they dug into heaping plates of cauliflower tacos, with garbanzo beans, smoky Mexican spices and tomatillo chutney.
"They're not flavors we've had for the last few days in rural southern Utah," Johnson says.
And that's exactly the idea. Five years ago, Ripple Desai opened the Tandoori Taqueria in her hometown of Panguitch, which has population of about 1,500. The Tandoori Taqueria definitely stands out on the town's short main drag among several mom and pop coffee shops and diners, a Family Dollar and NAPA Auto Parts store.
"I'm Indian, my parents are both from India," says Desai, quickly adding, "And, I love tacos."
Her menu is a fusion of traditional Indian dishes with that beloved Mexican staple — tacos. She uses naan bread as the tortilla. Over a busy recent lunch hour, customers packed the tidy dining room eating slow-roasted beef chorizo tacos topped with tomatillo chutney, spicy pozole with pork marinated in a turmeric dry rub and a dish called curry a la verazcruzana, chicken and garbanzo beans in a roasted red pepper sauce. Every dish is cooked to order in a small kitchen off the dining area.
"I wanted to do something completely different," Desai says. "I wanted to make sure that you're eating something unlike anything else you've had."
The Taqueria mostly caters to tourists who visit Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks and the nearby Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Desai says she did get a few second looks initially from locals. But she was used to it. They were the only Indian family in a mostly white, Mormon town for most of her childhood. Her parents still own the motel they bought in the 1980s, down the street from the restaurant, which is in a building Ripple's father also owned.
Desai recalls fondly begging her mom to make tacos as a kid — her mom mostly made traditional Gujarati dishes from her native state of Gujarat in India, lots of spices, lentils, vegetables and rice. She grew up learning to cook it.
"And that's what my mom [still] makes every single day, even to this day," Desai says. "That's what I have when I leave here at 10 p.m. and go home."
Her mom, Tarla Desai is always cooking, except when she stops into her daughter's Taqueria for a snack.
"She samples everything," Ripple says, adding that she's always letting her know if her rice is too crispy or if a dish needs more seasoning.
It's clear though that Tarla is proud of her daughter.
"She's doing good, everyone loves it," Tarla says. "She has a business mind and got the Indian cooking style."
And Mom is playing another key role. Every winter when the tourists leave, she and Ripple's father close up their hotel and travel, usually home to India. They return in the spring with spices in two 50-pound suitcases.
It's what gives those tasty chicken tikka tacos that extra kick.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the Indian state of Gujarat as Gujrati.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Drive down the main drag in Panguitch, Utah, and you'll see a diner, the Cowboy's Smokehouse barbecue, a Family Dollar - what you might expect for a small, Rocky Mountain town. But on a recent reporting trip, one newer place caught the eye of NPR's Kirk Siegler - a cafe that fuses tacos with traditional Indian food.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Panguitch, Utah, is cowboy country. It's meat and potatoes kind of town. It's also at the doorstep to Utah's famous national parks. Kim Johnson and her family just spent three days hiking Bryce Canyon. They're vegetarians.
KIM JOHNSON: Well, we've eaten a lot of Subway sandwiches. And we've eaten a lot of large side salads because it's a quite meaty environment (laughter).
SIEGLER: So when they spotted the Tandoori Taqueria on their drive home to Salt Lake City, they had to stop.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is delicious.
SIEGLER: They're devouring a plate of Bengali-inspired cauliflower tacos with garbanzo beans, smoky Mexican spices and tomatillo chutney wrapped in naan bread - that's the tortilla.
JOHNSON: They're not flavors we've had for the last few days in rural southern Utah (laughter).
SIEGLER: And that's the idea, says Tandoori Taqueria owner Ripple Desai.
RIPPLE DESAI: So I'm Indian. My parents are both from India, and I love tacos.
SIEGLER: She grew up in Panguitch. Her family moved here in the '80s. Now, they were also on a summer vacation from their home in California. Her parents liked the area so much that they ended up making an offer on a motel. After high school, Ripple couldn't leave fast enough.
R DESAI: I did that whole never coming back here, hate this area, good riddance. And I'm back. So I love actually being back and spending time with my parents. It's a gorgeous area.
SIEGLER: And in some ways, it's an easier place to start your first restaurant. There's less pressure to get everything right straight away than there is in a competitive city. Her customers are also mostly happy tourists on vacation. Now, she did get a few strange looks at first from locals, but she was used to that. Growing up, they were the only Indian family in a mostly white town of 1,500 people.
R DESAI: I wanted to do something completely different. I wanted to make sure that you're eating something unlike anything else you've had. So if you're going to tell me that this is different and weird, thank you.
SIEGLER: Everything here is cooked to order in a small kitchen behind the tidy dining room.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)
SIEGLER: Tandoori chicken sizzles in a skillet. There's chorizo sausage soon to be topped with a tangy slaw and pozole simmering in cast iron.
R DESAI: And it has a curry turmeric dry rub on the pork roast.
SIEGLER: So she loved tacos as a kid, begged her mom to make them. But mom usually made traditional dishes from her native state of Gujarati - all vegetarian. Ripple grew up learning to cook it - lots of spices, rice, lentils, vegetables.
R DESAI: That's what my mom makes every single day. Even to this day, that's what I have when I leave here at 10 p.m. and go home. That's what I have for dinner.
SIEGLER: Her mom Tarla Desai is always cooking, except when she stops into her daughter's taqueria for an afternoon snack.
R DESAI: What do you think of my cooking, mom? My cooking is great.
TARLA DESAI: It's really good.
R DESAI: (Laughter).
SIEGLER: Beaming, Tarla is proud of her daughter.
T DESAI: She's doing good. Everyone loves it. She has a business mind, plus got the Indian cooking style.
SIEGLER: And mom is playing another key role. Every winter when the tourists leave, they close up the hotel and travel home to India, returning in the spring with spices...
R DESAI: In two 50-pound suitcases.
SIEGLER: ...Giving the Chicken Tikka Tikka that extra kick.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Panguitch, Utah.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOE STRUMMER AND THE MESCALEROS SONG,"BHINDI BHANGEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.