From Ranch to Rajma

Tell us about your journey in the world of food and hospitality.

I’ve been in St. Louis since 2003. My first job was at Denny’s. I had no idea what ranch (dressing) was before that and I’ve learned a lot since then! I was a server there for 10 years, was at First Watch for 13 years, and Red Lobster for seven years. I worked five double shifts waiting tables for 75 to 80 hours every week and saved all my quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. I’d religiously close my eyes every day and empty out my pockets into a jar and did not look at it for four years. 

I went to a bank with a coin machine and opened a new account. After spending two hours emptying five big bags of coins, I had enough to buy a plane ticket to go to India for a month. That’s where my mom took me to a little restaurant, Bittu Tikki Wala, that started out as a stand on the side of the road that would sell out after three hours every evening. I was inspired by that person’s journey to create a restaurant of my own. When I got home, I took a drink out to (some) regulars and said, “I believe I’m going to have a food truck”’ and they asked “What are you going to sell?” And all the planning started from there.

I did not know how to hold on to a chef’s knife. I had to watch many videos and ask questions to great managers who were very helpful and encouraging. I started making dishes for co-workers to try and I’m so thankful for them all for taking the time to taste it. That was my market research and how I created this menu. The entire first year-and-a-half, I worked by myself but that taught me about the whole process whether it was prep, cooking, dishes, cleaning, organizing, or getting the shopping inventory done. I love that I’ve had a chance to experience every station and now I’m growing a team. I am still planning on a food truck, but having a little to-go restaurant has given us the ability to grow in a manner people really enjoy.

Maaji’s Street Kitchen offers homestyle Northern Indian cuisine in St. Ann.

What are your signature dishes and what makes them special?

We don’t have a single restaurant-style item on the menu. It’s all homestyle ingredients and dishes. The dishes we make here are what Indians enjoy at home every day, without additives no cornstarch, corn flour, cream, sugar, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, canned beans, dairy, or soy with the exception of one paneer and one tofu dish. Anything with flour and sugar is not prepared in our kitchen. We get the best things we know of and keep them separate. People go out (to eat) with dietary needs and it’s hard to find an inclusive place a meat lover can enjoy with someone who is vegan, gluten-free, or dairy free. Here, everybody can have a place with favorites that are flavorful, healthy, delicious, and also not very easy to find. 

Every dish on my menu has been my favorite, including the lentils my mother made for me since I was 4 years old. Rajma is another North Indian specialty you have to wait to enjoy when your mom has a full day’s time to make. It’s a red-bean chili with a slow cooking process and has a lot of different spices. I love our potatoes and peas also. They’re so tender with a base of onions, ginger, chile, and garlic. It’s such a simple comforting dish, like a warm blanket when you need a little cheering up. The menu has been selected in such a manner as if you were eating at an Indian household. We use air fryers and do offer some indulgences as well, like chaat fries.

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Chaat fries with air-fried potatoes, a duo of chutneys, tomatoes, onions, chaat masala, sev, yogurt, and fresh cilantro; vegetable samosas; garlic and ghee parantha; and golgappa, or crispy shells filled with spiced organic potatoes, chickpeas, and onion with chaat masala, fresh cilantro, and crispy boondi along with tamarind and mint water.

How has St. Ann shaped your business?

St. Ann is a great place to start from and I love this locality and hope to build it up even more. Some things are just meant to be. I’m so happy I did not build my truck first and built my kitchen first because once I worked in this kitchen, I knew I didn’t buy a big enough truck. St. Ann has given me the opportunity to define some systems in the kitchen that will make it simple when the food truck gets launched. We’ve been growing our menu and community in the meantime. We started with five dishes two-and-a-half years ago and it has grown in many (ways).

This is close to the airport, so I’ve made regulars not only from St. Louis but regulars from all around America as well. It’s been fantastic. So many people from Houston, Dallas, Florida, Ohio, Seattle, Washington, Michigan, and New York come to St. Louis once a month, every two weeks or once a week. It makes me happy that we’ve made regulars from out of town. They land at the airport and come in for their favorite roll up or bowl. It’s exciting to see them back and for them to come enjoy a home-cooked meal away from home.

Chef-owner Heena Chopra discusses the menu with new guests at the counter.

You’ve taken such a holistic and hands-on approach to serving your homestyle cooking. How has the community responded?

It’s awesome to share hearty dishes that are not just flavorful but nutritious as well. Nobody else makes a shredded chicken curry, and ours is full of ginger, cumin, coriander, and spicy with green chiles. It’s creamy, delicious, tender, and fantastic with our paranthas. When everybody tastes our other dishes with lentils, cauliflower, chickpeas, they fall in love with the flavors so much because they have a hearty basis to them. 

Cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom, and amazing spices give Indian cuisine its depth, and guests love them so much that they don’t even miss meat dishes. It’s about putting together the right things so you’re getting the right combination, and Indian food has figured that out in terms of balance. That’s what generations and generations have been taught at home. When people enjoy our vegetarian or vegan offerings with a big smile on their face, I love that. It makes me so happy.

What do you love about living in St. Louis and running a business here?

I love the community. St. Louis is so proud, inviting, and welcoming. It doesn’t matter what part (of town) you go to you’ll see a familiar face or smile. You’ll always find a connection because it is a small town in a big city kind of way. It allows you to grow and to take care of your family. I think St. Louis is just the best place to live. It’s my home and will always have a special place in my heart. I was born in India, but I’m planted here. You should grow wherever you’re planted and that’s exactly what I’m here to do.

I love that we are creating a special place for people to enjoy homestyle Indian food. We are ready to make St. Louis sweat one spicy dish at a time.

Snapshots from inside Maaji’s Street Kitchen in St. Ann, including chalkboard art by Alexis Austriaco of Love is Mehndi Henna Design.

What’s next for you and the restaurant?

We’ve grown from where we started serving lunch only to being open six days a week from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., with a second location at Soulard Farmers Market every Friday and Saturday. We will also add a food truck as we grow our menu, client base, and community. We’re looking for a food truck that would be best for the needs of the kitchen. Along with that, I’m also making sure I’m perfecting the menu so that many people are able to enjoy our flavor and homestyle cooking closer to their homes to share with their families and friends.

We would also love to have our spice blends (for guests) to be able to take home and create (their) own dishes. Our chutney is very popular and has no sugar, no added oils, and no (artificial or synthetic) colors. It’s fantastic for you to brighten your dishes at home. There are many more ways to grow and I’m excited about all of them. I love it when somebody new comes in and says my friends have told me about you or that they’ve heard good things. It’s so awesome and I thank everyone. I’ve had a chance to grow as a person and the whole journey has been great.

Maaji’s Street Kitchen, which offers fast-casual service, debuted in 2022.

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