A week after opening his first restaurant, Ashok Kumar could not sleep. It was November 1989, and trying to run a nonsmoking establishment, even in a forward-thinking place like Sausalito, was proving very difficult indeed. "Twenty people would come in," Kumar says, "and when we had no ashtrays to give them, 10 would leave."
So even though they had no money, 20-year-old Kumar and his brother-in-law, Avatar, borrowed another thousand dollars from the bank, printed up invitations and hosted a free feast, replete with beer and wine. "It was the day before Thanksgiving, and we wanted to give something to the community," Kumar tells me on a recent morning, as we sip coffee at the third of his five Avatar's Punjabi Burrito restaurants, in Petaluma.
That first year they served 46 people. Last year, the day-before-Thanksgiving meal, a running tradition in Sausalito now for 23 years, drew 1,147 diners, from as far away as Sacramento, and was broadcast live by Channel 2. Even Bonnie Raitt—whom Kumar calls one of his best customers—has helped wash dishes.
The sleepless nights are over. The Sausalito restaurant, now a favorite of folks like Robin Williams and Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison, soon spawned another iteration in Mill Valley. Though Avatar passed away 12 years ago, Kumar's sister Kala is still head chef, and together with his wife, Saru, they continue to run a family business.
Two years ago, Bruce Osterlye, owner of the beloved Aram's Cafe on Petaluma's well-trafficked Kentucky Street, approached Kumar with an offer to sell. Kumar did not hesitate. He wrote a check within the week and kept the same chefs, who are still cooking for him today. Two more restaurants, in Larkspur and Fairfax, have opened in the past few months. How did this once-fledgling eatery become so popular that an average of 150 people dine at each location every day?
The answer lies in the food itself, which Kumar describes as Indian-Mexican, Indian-Jamaican and Indian-Cajun fusion. Instead of the heavy, rich food that many Americans associate with Indian cooking, Avatar's food is light, cooked only in olive oil, never butter.
"In 23 years, no one has ever sent a dish back," Kumar tells me with a flourish of his hand. And while he is given to grandiosity ("You cannot find this food anywhere on the planet!"), I am inclined to believe him. With dishes like pumpkin enchiladas ($12), Jamaican jerk venison ($18) and curried lamb burritos ($8), the "purveyor of ethnic confusions" has created a dining experience not likely to be replicated, or forgotten. It's not every day that you find the flavors of homemade yogurt, tamarind, pickled carrots, salsa and fruit chutney complementing each other on one plate.
Unlike many restaurants that frown upon special requests, Avatar's invites customers to be specific and exacting in their needs. "Please challenge me," Kumar says, "and we will create anything you need—gluten-free, vegan, low carb, low sodium, whatever you want." He even blends food for a regular customer who is on a liquid diet.
The Petaluma menu is rife with choices—burritos, enchiladas and rice plates come with choice of chicken, ground turkey, tofu, lamb, rock shrimp, crab, salmon, sea bass or ahi. Drinks include sweet and salty lassis, chai, homemade lemonade and ginger beer.
When it comes to dessert, however, there is only one option, Avatar's Dream, which is described with a directive: "Close your eyes and picture the sweetest concoction of dessert flavors from around the world coming full circle on one plate of bliss." While it's unlikely that you just pictured a wedge of almond gelato on a chocolate graham cracker crust topped with pistachio marzipan and drizzled with mango and rose petal syrup, it's also unlikely that this sublime dessert would disappoint anyone.
Beneath sparkling eyes, Kumar weaves a rags-to-riches tale full of karmic give and take. There are those who helped him—his parents, who, though poor and raising nine children, were committed to education, which led him to UC Berkeley in 1987; the 70 employees of Autodesk who, in 1989, took a chance on the new restaurant next door and became some of its most loyal customers.
And then there are those he loves to help. Kumar, still the sole server in Sausalito, invites his customers to leave their résumés with him, which he then periodically gives to dining CEOs looking to hire new employees. He hosts an annual pancake breakfast fundraiser for the Sausalito public schools that last year brought in $16,000.
And when he announced five years ago that he was closing his restaurant for a couple of weeks while he traveled to his nephew's wedding, his customers were despondent. "Come to India with me!" Kumar told them, and though he was mostly joking, 72 of them took him up on it.
Not many people can honestly say, "I love everybody," but after spending an hour with Kumar, the sentiment is entirely believable.
"The second time I see you, I remember you," Kumar smiles, "and by the third time, we are friends."