915 Pearl Street, La Jolla
Tawa Lamb Pulao
Bhuni Makai Ka Shorba
He’s complaining again. I try to console him as we park on a side street in La Jolla, but he seems determined to not enjoy himself. My friend is Indian, and has agreed to lend his native tongue for an exploration of Masala Street, an Indian gastropub of sorts.
“It has a quinoa chaat,” he sneers.
“It’s not trying to be the most authentic Indian restaurant on the planet.”
(Muffled grumbling noises.)
“And what the hell is a tacosa?” he barks.
Masala Street is located next to a Mathnasium on Pearl Street. It’s not on Prospect, the main place where humans walk and eat while in the affluent, damn-gorgeous little seaside town. Its facade is not architecturally chic or attractive. It looks like one of those generic American storefronts that might be next to a Panera, or a Mathnasium. There doesn’t appear to be any parking, either. (There is; it’s in the back.)
Location, location, location is hard, hard, hard.
But what Masala lacks in street appeal it makes up for with its name. The name is Oberoi. In India, that name is the equivalent of Keller, Boulud, and Puck. Hemant Oberoi was the grand executive chef for one of Asia’s largest luxury hotel groups, Taj. He spent over three decades as the grand executive chef of Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai before stepping down in 2015 and opening his own restaurant in Mumbai. He’s cooked for US presidents and a good chunk of the names on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He’s not living in La Jolla. But his son is and, no surprise, his son can cook. Saransh Oberoi last spent time in the kitchen at Campton Place, a two-star Michelin restaurant at Taj’s hotel in San Francisco. The father and son collaborated to create this new concept in La Jolla.
You need to evaluate a restaurant on what it’s trying to be, I tell my grumpy purist friend. And Masala Street is not attempting to be a hardcore authentic Indian restaurant. The elder Oberoi was famous for Indian fusion at Taj, whether it was his naza (a pizza on the Indian flatbread, naan) or combining the classic Indian dessert galub jamun with crème brûlée.
Dilli ki challi (roasted and spiced corn on the cob)
The first thing you notice is that there is no samosa on the menu. The pocket food—like a dumpling or pierogi—can be lovely, but has been so thoroughly marginalized by substandard Indian restaurants that most Americans think of them as heavy, fried satchels of sadness, not unlike a Hot Pocket or Pizza Roll.
Instead, the Oberois present a tacosa, with a tiny, flaky, light shell that has the delicate bite of a filo pastry. Inside are traditional samosa ingredients like spiced potatoes, mung beans, yogurt, and cilantro. It’s an excellent Mumbaikar riff on San Diegan street taco culture, with a jolt from habanero pepper sauce’s intense floral flavor. Chaats should be a bevy of high notes—tangy, sour, spicy, crunchy—but the quinoa chaat is served a bit too cold, so the flavors refuse to wake up.
Mexican and Indian food are natural bedfellows. Both use spices like explosive confetti; both love coriander and cilantro. The empanada is essentially a samosa. Roti, a pan-fried, designer bread, and the thicker, flakier naan, are like tortillas. Tijuana uses tons of fresh Cotija cheese; Delhi uses paneer. And chutneys are basically salsas with a spicier, more aggressive bite.
Tawa lamb pulao with saffron, cilantro, and mint
Mexico uses crema to temper its abundant heat, India uses the yogurt-based raita. Masala Street’s raita is world-class, and barring lactose or pleasure intolerance, it should be used liberally on dishes like the aloo (potato-filled) paratha or the even-better lamb paratha.
The masala popcorn shrimp is a lesson in how to master the light, crunchy semolina frying technique, and the pickled aioli should be bottled and sold as a cure for ailments of all sorts.
Another successful fusion is the brie and truffle naan, a round of flatbread with the creamy cheese and musky truffle funk. It’s a taste of the elder Oberoi’s current restaurant in Mumbai, where they serve a brie and truffle soufflé. You could also just order the standard naan, a lovely round that arrives glistening with ghee (clarified butter).
Tacosa (a samosa taco with spiced potato, moong, and yogurt)
Our server recommends the kursi chaat, which are served on adorable tiny wooden chairs. A spiced crisp is layered with a strip of mango leather, seasoned potato, tamarind chutney, and yogurt. It’s nice, if a little dominated by the thick-cut fruit leather.
Indian food has always been the friendliest to vegetarian desires, so it’s no surprise that the stars of Masala’s menu are the corn dishes. Their quartered corn on the cob is nicely caramelized and roasted on every kernel, topped with cilantro with a spicy garam masala chutney of sorts on the plate. If you’ve ever loved Mexican street corn, this will win you over. If you’ve never loved Mexican street corn, please try to live better. The bhuni makai ka shorba is one apex soup, thin and delicious with roasted corn and spices (usually a mix of cumin, turmeric, clove, cinnamon, etc.). The dal tadka is the perfect balance of garlic, yellow lentils, and more garlic.
Palak paneer is a classic Indian dish, usually fried spinach and other greens served over chunks of cheese, and it should reek of garlic. Masala’s follows through on the garlic, but there’s a bitter flavor that throws it off, possibly from use of a stringent leaf that bullies the sweet, silky flavor of mature spinach. The healthier side of me respects their decision not to fry the cheese, even if it would taste better.
Brie and truffle naan
The Oberois’ riff on the classic chicken tikka masala opts not to use yogurt or heavy cream in the sauce, which many Indian chefs do. So, it’s more tomato, less luxury. But it has that market-fresh flavor to make up for it, and works when tossed with raita. We’re most floored by the lamb pulau—chunks of meat in a perfectly spiced rice with just the right note of cinnamon.
My Indian friend is reluctantly impressed with most of our Masala meal, except for the butter chicken. “It should explode with distinct spice notes,” he says.
I can never have Indian food without a mango lassi—essentially a cross between a smoothie and a milkshake. Masala Street’s is light orange, meaning they use fresh mango, and you can taste the difference. Bright orange is the telltale sign of a lesser lassi. That’s a recurring note at Masala Street—the quality, vibrance, and freshness of the ingredients.
When Indian food has disappointed me in the past, it’s been because of those brick-ish, oil-sopped samosas, and dullness of produce. Not the case at Masala. Chefs of the Oberois’ pedigree know great dishes aren’t made from less-than-great ingredients.
That a first family of Indian cuisine would bring a concept to San Diego is a testament to how far the city has come. Masala arrives among other established, worthy peers, and it’s still impressive—especially those sauces, that raita, and that bread.
Three Lemon Shrimp with lime leaves, zest, pickled lemons, and yogurt