By Frier McCollister
Union Street between Raymond and Fair Oaks is a bustling dining strip. Now it’s more enticing: Chakra Indian Kitchen opened in December and outdoor dining resumed in Pasadena. Both events are heartening surprises.
General manager Rajavanniyan Mayaperumal chats about Chakra Indian Kitchen as a couple enjoy burgers for lunch outside of Slater’s 50/50, behind street barricades, just across the street.
The restaurant specializing in authentic south Indian cuisine opened on Dec. 11, just days following the state’s last ban on outdoor dining. As Mayaperumal indicated,
“We’re doing it (outdoor dining) on the patio and sidewalk,” Mayaperumal said. “We can’t put out barricades.”
He pointed to the small patio area at their entrance on Raymond and the sidewalk running along Union Street, where two-tops will be placed. On this strip of Union Street, the barricaded dining lane runs on the north side of Union and accommodates patrons from Slater’s 50/50, The Blind Donkey, Perle and Union.
Chakra Indian Kitchen occupies the same space that housed Chutney, a fast-casual Indian eatery with a limited and eclectic menu. Mayaperumal confirmed there is no relation between the two restaurants and indicated the difference.
“We are really traditional. No fusion. We do real Indian food,” Mayaperumal said.
Chakra’s menu is wide ranging and offers all the traditional dishes and preparations from across the subcontinent. From tandooris and vindaloos to curries and paneers, any enthusiast of Indian cuisine will find their favorites here. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options as well. The discerning local diner will note the real specialty here are regional preps from south India. Dosas, idlis, vadas and specific regional variations on biryani rice plates are the standouts here. Notably, there are also entrees starring lamb and goat. Beef? Not here. Chakra’s owners and staff are all reliably observant Hindus.
South Indian cuisine is noted for its spice and the depth and complexity of its seasoning.
Onion pakoras ($8.99) stayed pleasingly crisp in transit as did the gobi Manchurian ($9.99), featuring lightly battered and fried cauliflower florets draped in a mildly spiced and tangy tomato sauce. Goat sukka ($13.99), marinated bone-in chunks of goat in a pepper braise, provided cold weather comfort. The meat makes another welcome appearance in the goat dum biryani ($15.99) layered and sauced in saffron basmati rice. Finally, the lamb vindaloo ($15.99) was pronounced to be “the best ever” by a fellow diner.
The owners and staff at Chakra are all natives of the south Indian province Tamil Nadu, specifically the area surrounding the metropolis of Chennai. As Chef Satheesh Kumar Madahangopal emerged from his spacious kitchen, he walked through the menu of south Indian specialties. Dosas are long rolled crepes filled with savory combinations of ingredients. The Chakra special masala dosa ($12.99) is a splay of masala-spiced vegetables rolled into a crepe fried to a tender crisp and served with both a spicy pepper dipping sauce as well as a cooling yogurt raita sauce. There are 17 dosa preparations here ($9.99 to $12.99), some served with regional chutneys. For newbies, it’s probably best to ask for guidance in ordering.
Idlis (three pieces for $7.99) are another standard south Indian snack. The steamed lentil and rice cakes are served with an array of chutneys and condiments.
Vadas ($6.99/ $7.99) come in three varieties, each a riff on the savory lentil doughnut, deep fried and served with a tomato pepper broth. The regional rice biryanis include hyderabadi chicken dum ($13.99) with slow cooked marinated chicken; madras handi goat ($15.99, available weekends only); and dindigul mutton ($15.99) with marinated lamb and “seeraga samba” rice.
Ask Madahangopal for his favorite and he points to Chakra special murg masala ($14.99), featuring boneless chicken slow-cooked and served in a mild cilantro sauce. As he explained, it’s the first dish he mastered as an apprentice in the kitchens of a luxury hotel in Chennai.
Chakra Indian Kitchen is owned by Dhanalakshmi Venkatesan and her husband, Sakthivel Venkatesan. Chakra is their second restaurant in Southern California, the first being Southern Spice in Lawndale, which opened in 2018 and has remained open for takeout and delivery throughout the pandemic. Pasadena guests to the Lawndale location had begged the Venkatesans to consider bringing their uniquely authentic south Indian cuisine to them.
The course of launching Chakra Indian Kitchen here has been predictably fraught with the uncertain timings of the pandemic restrictions and lockdowns.
“We signed the lease on March 18, a week after the lockdown,” Dhanalakshmi said.
With the hopeful intention of opening in April, the Venkatesans found themselves waiting for a new round of health department inspections.
“We were really hoping that by June or July everything would be OK,” she said. “The inspection process continued to lag. We got the OK to open in late September, but, cases were still rising with COVID. We still wanted to open by the end of 2020. We had to start somewhere. We said, ‘We might as well open and see what happens.’”
Vedic astrology was considered, and a Hindu priest conducted a ritual puja ceremony to sanctify the space and bless the enterprise. Finally, the Venkatesans opened Chakra Indian Kitchen for business on Dec. 11.
Dhanalakshmi is philosophical about the experience and also offers a hopeful prediction,
“It’s all up to how God wants to make things happen,” Dhanalakshmi said. “2021 is going to be better than 2020.”