Photo by Joe Olivieri
Restaurant offers curries and kabobs for busy diners
The owners of local eatery The Clay Pit wanted to open a different type of Indian restaurant in South Austin.
They did not want a second large-scale, full-service restaurant and bar—the long hours and responsibilities would be too much for new parents Project Manager Tinku Saini and Front of House Operations Rajina Pradhan.
At the same time, they did not want to create “dumbed-down, assembly line” Indian food either, Saini said.
The owners split the difference and opened Tarka Indian Kitchen, which strives to deliver flavorful contemporary Indian cuisine to cost-conscious diners.
“We saw the trends in the industry going toward fast-casual [dining], and the economy dictates that,” he said. “When the economy goes down, people start trading down.
“That’s kind of what this restaurant offers—fresh-to-order meals with quality ingredients, but you’re not having to pay for the overhead, servers and huge building,” he continued.
The formula has proven popular since Tarka opened up its first restaurant in Sunset Valley in September 2009.
“We found that location, and we really liked it. We live on the south end of town, and it was completely underserved in terms of Indian food,” he said.
The restaurant found a following in Sunset Valley and the Greater South Austin area. From there, Tarka opened a second location in Round Rock in November 2010 and a third location in North Austin in May 2012.
“The reception has been amazing,” Saini said of the new Anderson Lane location. “One thing we don’t necessarily like to hear is, ‘We don’t have to go to Sunset Valley or Round Rock anymore.”
The Anderson Lane location does not seem to be taking business from the two older locations, Saini added.
Saini said Tarka’s employees want to make Indian food accessible.
The menu is a mix of traditional recipes and contemporary creations such as “naanini,” a panini on Indian naan bread. The menu is divided into three main categories: curries, kabobs and biryanis, a kind of stir-fry. All menu items cost less than $10 and many cost less than $8.
“The way the menu is laid out, we do some of the work for you. You pick your sauce. You pick your protein. We want to make it more approachable,” he said.
Saini said a common misconception is that all Indian food is spicy.
Some dishes will be spicier than others by nature, and diners can find the same complex flavors they enjoy at The Clay Pit, he said. Tarka offers to prepare many dishes as mild, medium or hot.
Tarka also trains its employees and managers to help recommend dishes to inquisitive customers.
“They can help match your palate—are you looking for something savory, or rich and creamy? Can you do lamb, or would you like chicken? We have gluten-free options, too,” he said.
Among Tarka’s most popular items—and a common entry point into Indian food—is chicken tikka masala.
Diners who are more familiar with Indian food can take advantage of pairing Tarka’s meals with wine and beer.
“We serve Indian beer, Kingfisher. We serve a hoppy pale ale, which goes well. The drier white wines work as a palate cleanser,” he said.
Customers can also explore the dessert and beverage menus. Lassis, an Indian yogurt and fruit drink, is available in mango, pineapple, mixed berry and guava.
Tarka caters to its discerning clientele in the same way it does for first-timers—making sure every dish is top-notch, Saini said.
- Curries: Tikka masala, korma, saag (spinach), coconut curry, vindaloo (onion and tomato) and mirch masala
- Biryanis: Basmati rice stir-fry with ginger, garlic, onion and vegetables
- Kabobs: Chicken, sheesh (lamb and chicken) and vegetable
- “Naaninis”: Meats served sandwich-style in between naan bread
- Soups: Mulligatawny (vegetables and lentils), madras (tomato-coconut)
- Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices
11 a.m.–9 p.m. Sun.–Thu., 11 a.m.–10 p.m Fri. and Sat.