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.