Kumar’s Mess and the Changing Face of Indian Food in the Twin Cities Metro (Apple Valley, MN)

We are well into the Golden Age of Indian food in the Twin Cities metro. You might not have a sense of this from the local food media’s restaurant coverage but over the course of the last half-decade or so the Indian population of the Twin Cities metro has been growing steadily and newer restaurants have been opening to cater to this market. As I’ve noted in a number of write-ups on the blog, the new(er) population is likely highly skewed towards South Indians. This can be seen both in what’s on offer in Indian groceries around the metro (see my look at TBS Mart in Bloomington, for example) and in the fact that more and more restaurants have opened in the last few years that have menus focused on South Indian dishes. (I’ve reviewed a few of these—Persis, Bay Leaf, Hyderabad Indian Grill.)

I am yet to explore the places in the western suburbs but of the places I’ve been to the best, in my opinion, is Kabob’s Indian Grill in Bloomington which I came upon rather belatedly in October. What I was most struck by at Kabob’s—other than the tastiness of the food and the incredible value of their weekday lunch thalis—is how specific and esoteric most of the dishes are. Leave alone mainstream Americans, many North Indians might eat some of those dishes here for the first time in their lives (I certainly did).

Into this changing/changed scene comes now an outpost of a Texas-based mini-franchise, Kumar’s Mess, that further underlines the demographic shifts driving Indian restaurant growth in the Twin Cities. What I mean is that Kumar’s Mess—or just Kumar’s, as the local franchise is billing itself—does not cater very much, if at all to the expectations of American diners who associate Indian restaurant food with butter/tandoori chicken, dal makhni, saag paneer etc. They’ve been open for a few weeks now and their soft launch weekend menu does not include the North Indian curry house staples; and as of this past weekend they didn’t even have a tandoor up and running. Now, when the full menu appears it will include those curry house staples but a look at the menu on their website will give you a sense of how much of an afterthought that stuff is. And based on our visit this past weekend, it’s not even obvious that they will need to sling very much of that stuff to an American clientele to succeed.

Their concept or USP—as we call it in India—is a Tamil-centered thali. On weekdays the thali looks much like it does at Kabob’s. You choose between a non-veg or veg version and you get a large round platter with rice and a selection of savoury dishes, sides and dessert served in small katoris (bowls) on the thali. On the weekend the format changes. Now you get a much larger rectangular thali with a banana leaf on it and servers come around with large serving vessels from which they dispense whatever you want and however much of it you want over the course of the meal. If you don’t know Tamil food well—as I don’t—good luck figuring out what much of it is without help. As at Kabob’s though you should not worry about all that and instead just enjoy the food, which is indeed, on the whole, quite enjoyable. But before I get to the requisite pictures of my two meals there—one alone, one with the family—let me reiterate again how different this feels from the familiar North Indian curry house scene that continues to be what the mainstream thinks of when they think of Indian food and on which mainstream food media coverage seems to be centered.

Kumar’s—which occupies the location of the erstwhile Apple Valley branch of Darbar—is a large restaurant. (The “Mess” in the franchise’s name refers to mess halls; in India the term is used outside military settings as well.) And it is a very nicely appointed restaurant. Where Kabob’s is an absolute zero-frills store-front, quite a bit of money has been spent on Kumar’s interior design. I’m not sure how much consistency is required across the franchises but this is an elegant, contemporary restaurant whose aesthetic eschews the elephants and religious iconography that are hallmarks of the genre. This in and of itself does not mark the difference; that lies in the fact, as noted above, that this large, attractive restaurant is aimed first, second and third at Indian diners. There is clearly a confidence here that they do not have to be a North Indian curry house to succeed or aimed at the people who associate Indian food with North Indian curry house food. Now will this prove true over the long run? Hard to say—but the key point is that the bet is being made at all. It’s one thing for a tiny place like Kabob’s, a functional place driven largely by takeout orders, to make this kind of a bet; quite another for a restaurant of Kumar’s scale. (The restaurant, by the way, is owned by the same people who own the neighbouring Mantra Bazar grocery and they’ve recently dramatically expanded that shop as well.)

This leads to the next point: the bulk of the Indian—and broadly South Asian—population of the Twin Cities is obviously in the suburbs, not in the Twin Cities proper. And it seems to be the western and southern suburbs where the new population is gathering. The Cedar Avenue corridor all down to Lakeville is filling up with new construction and the expansion of Indian restaurants and groceries in this part of the metro suggests that more than a bit of that new construction is filling up with desis. The proof of the pudding is that at lunch on Sunday the place was jammed, and I mean jammed, with not a single non-Indian face to be seen except that of the missus at our table. In fact, I may have been the only non-South Indian brown person there! And from what I can tell they had a similar mob scene the previous weekend as well (their first weekend open). Indians are here and we’re obviously hungry for this stuff.

It seems quite clear to me that if you want to explore the true depth of Indian food in the Twin Cities metro you now have to go not to the old North Indian standbys that mainstream writers and foodies talk about but to where Indians actually are. I myself have been guilty until quite recently of thinking only of North Indian curry houses when assessing the state of Indian food in the Twin Cities. None of what I am describing here has happened overnight. But now that I am more aware of it I am going to be exploring the rest of the suburban scene as well. I can only hope that people with far greater readerships and reach than I have on this blog will draw their audience’s attention to these developments as well. But as i noted in my writeup of Homi last week, it’s not going to happen if people are focused mostly/entirely on p.r-driven high(er) end restaurants aimed primarily at affluent white diners.

With all that said, what was the food like? Well…based on my two meals there right now it is good but not great. Please keep in mind that they are still in the soft launch phase and as per conversation with one of the owners, very (happily) overwhelmed by the response to the opening. Once they get going and everything becomes smoother in the kitchen the quality will likely improve. Certainly there were some dishes at both meals that were very good indeed; and nothing was close to being bad. On the whole, however, when it comes to just the food I’d say Kabob’s thalis are clearly superior. But if you’re looking for a nice restaurant experience, there’s no comparison.

Weekday Lunch

My first meal was at noon on a Tuesday. There were a few other people dining—including some non-Indians—but the large restaurant seemed yawningly empty. However, this meant I could claim a large six-top to myself—one of very few window-side tables in an otherwise dark restaurant lit by yellow l.e.d lights. I asked for a non-veg thali and it came out quite promptly. Portions were a bit larger than at Kabob’s but it was otherwise very similarly structured. The key difference being that the non-veg thali had a fried chicken starter (very nice), a dry’ish goat prep (very good), a chicken curry (okay) and a fish curry (okay). So, you do get a lot more bang for the slightly more expensive buck here (their weekday non-veg thali is $12 to Kabobs’ $10). You don’t, however, get much by way of vegetarian dishes beyond sambar and rasam (both of which were fine). On my next weekday visit I am going to give their veg thali a try.

In addition to the thalis, the soft launch menu—as you will see below—has a few more things on offer at weekday lunch as well: dosas, biryani etc. and yes, vindaloo and saag paneer. I didn’t see anyone eating anything but a thali though. Take a look at the pictures from this meal and then scroll down for a look at the weekend lunch.

This came to a total of just under $15.

Weekend Lunch

We arrived at 12.15 on Sunday to find the parking lot almost full and people gathered in the waiting area by the entrance. Fortunately, the backup was due not to every table being taken but a bit of an organizational logjam. We were seated within a few minutes. They do take reservations and I would really recommend making one if you’re going for weekend lunch. Without one you may be fine arriving before 12.30 as we did but after that you will be screwed. Indians eat later than Americans and by 1 pm there was a major crowd gathered in the front of the restaurant and some of it spilling over into the dining areas.

As noted, the weekend lunch thali format is different. We were told that the non-veg thali on the weekend is everything on the veg thali plus a few non-veg dishes. As such there did not seem to be much percentage in ordering a veg thali. The missus and I accordingly got a non-veg thali each. For the kids we got a plain dosa (with sambar and coconut chutney, all very good), an order of kalaki (basically a soft omlette; nice) and an order of Chennai chilli chicken (a bit spicy but not more than they can handle at this point; quite good).

Service begins with everyone being given a glass of spiced buttermilk (quite nice). First up on the thalis is a bit  of salt and a pickle. We were next served three vegetable dishes and rice. Of the three dishes the cabbage poriyal was just okay, the raw banana poriyal (at least I think it was a poriyal too) was better, and the spinach kootu was very good. After this came three non-veg dishes: an excellent mutton curry, a very good sour fish curry and a rather pedestrian chicken curry. At some point Malabar parathas showed up as well—these were just okay but I’d guess they’ll be much better when the kitchen is not slammed (I think I got one that had sat for a while while more were churned out to be brought out; or it may even have been a pre-made paratha). Sticky carrot halwa to end (just okay). Bottomless refills throughout of anything we wanted more of. It was only after getting home and looking at my picture of the  menu that I realized that they did not serve us sambar or rasam or another billed vegetable curry. I put this down to how overwhelmed they were. It would have been nice to eat them, of course, but it’s not like we left hungry—in fact we both skipped dinner. Please again make note of the fact that they are still in the soft launch phase and not yet a well-oiled machine.

Take a look at the pictures and scroll down for my overall take.

This lunch came to a total of $62 with tax and tip. Pretty good value for the four of us and what/how much we ate. Service was very friendly throughout even if obviously a bit harried on the weekend. Oh, you’re encouraged to eat with your hands as the vast majority of Indians do but they will happily give you cutlery if you ask.

Again, as I said, the food right now is closer to good than great. I’d still take it over any of the North Indian curry houses though—and I liked both lunches more than our dinners at Persis and Bay Leaf, to say nothing of the lunch buffets at Surabhi, Tandoor and even Hyderabad Indian Grill. I expect the cooking will improve as things settle down and the full menu comes online. In the meantime, my evaluation is only of lunch—and based on these two lunches I’d suggest that if you can make it on a weekday the weekday lunch thali might be a better proposition. I’ve no idea what their current dinner menu looks like on weekdays or weekends—I don’t believe they do thalis at dinner (I could be wrong). If you’ve been to dinner and have an opinion you’d be willing to share—or for that matter if you’ve been to lunch—please write in below. And if you’re more familiar than I am with the scene in Eden Prairie, Edina and environs please write in with recommendations as well.

Okay, next up from the Twin Cities: dinner at Lat14. Probably a recipe before that. And, of course, booze reviews.

5 thoughts on “Kumar’s Mess and the Changing Face of Indian Food in the Twin Cities Metro (Apple Valley, MN)

  1. We went to Kumar’s for dinner since we just didnt think we would have the patience to wait for the “unlimited” lunch-hour madness ;-).

    We ordered a veg soup and a mutton(goat) soup, a veg dosa and the mutton(goat) biryani. It was a rather middling experience for us. Sure its the best south indian fare in the Cities but that unfortunately is not saying much :-(. Not going back here in a hurry.


  2. I sometimes wonder if restaurants get their reputation for being “good” purely based on the amount they serve over the taste and quality of their fare. Just wondering aloud……


    • Probably to some extent. But I think in the case of a place like Kumar’s Mess (or even Kabob’s whose food I think is much better) it’s also the case that they are nonetheless much better than the average North Indian curry house in the US.

      On the whole, however, my enthusiasm for Kumar’s Mess is less about the absolute quality of the food than what the restaurant likely signals/confirms about the Indian food scene in the Twin Cities: that it is going to be driven more by Indian diners; it is just going to take mainstream American diners and food writers a little while to catch up.


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