When the smell of curry is in the air, some noses just can’t help but to drag their owners to investigate the source. On January 29, plenty of noses were drawn to Irvine Spectrum for the grand opening of Curry Up Now, an 11-year-old Indian fast food company which now has eight brick-and-mortar restaurants, three food trucks and two craft cocktail bar concepts spanning the U.S. While Irvine Weekly didn’t happen to make it to the grand opening, at which time the restaurant was dishing out free food to the first 100 guests, we did make it there soon thereafter to check out the establishment, talk to their manager about the Irvine franchise and try a couple of their tasty items.
The background of this Indian restaurant is unique. According to the company’s pre-opening press release, their story started on wheels. “Curry Up Now began as a food truck in 2009, founded by husband and wife duo, Akash and Rana Kapoor, and ably supported by co-founder and Senior VP of Operations, Amir Hosseini. Since day one, Curry Up Now has been on a mission to serve Indian flavors and ingredients in a way that is approachable for the everyday American consumer by utilizing formats that are more recognizable to the mainstream.” Having enjoyed eating Indian food for many years, I’d have not been shy about trying any new, traditionally styled Indian restaurant [you know, the kind that has Bollywood films or cricket matches displayed on large screen TVs throughout the establishment]; however, given that the average American has been conditioned to respond universally to homogenized, gentrified or similarly serialized branding, the idea of having an “approachable” Indian food chain was intriguing.
The exterior of the restaurant is designed conservatively enough. Their signage is cute and classy, and there is nothing about their storefront design that resonates with any foreign stylistic influence in a way that would suggest it would not have fit right in if it had wound up next to the Spectrum’s Hello Kitty Cafe. After walking through Curry Up Now’s doors, I realized that my fascination for the restaurant’s hybrid concept had only touched upon the proverbial tip of the iceberg. I had been all set to walk in there and ask for the most obvious choice: a tikka masala burrito, an item that appears to be as catchy in concept as it sounds in terms of its menu description, which labels the dish “iconic.” However, their rather expansive menu added extensive complications to my decision-making process. The sizable menu includes many classic sounding dishes such as tikka masala, lamb keema, dahi puri and samosas, with many customizable options (e.g. vegetarian, gluten-free, flour or wheat tortilla, choice of sides, etc.), as well as conceptual dishes with flirty names like Sexy Fries, Naughty Naan and Holy Moly Fried Ravioli.
It was easy enough for me to read the menu item descriptions for myself, but the best lessons in life come from empirical information, so I stepped up and asked the young lady at the counter what she recommended. I took her suggestion and placed my order. After taking the number holder for my order, I sat at one of the tables and briefly studied the restaurant’s modern design before returning my eyes to their menu, where I could further peruse the colorful items. Before long, my order arrived. The presentation for my Ghee Makhni Butter Bowl was straight forward enough: a plate half-filled with yellow rice (with a little ball of pico de gallo surfing on top), one quadrant of mildly spicy butter masala (with chicken) and one quadrant of my chosen side of chana garbanzo masala. The spicy butter masala was terrific! I thoroughly enjoyed the chana garbanzo masala as well. The rice was fine, and I enjoyed the pico. To wash it down, I’d ordered their mango lassi, which is served in a glass jar that guests can keep as a souvenir. The lassi was less sweet than I was anticipating, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.
As I finished up my dish, I observed the store’s manager, Ali Momenirad, brushing up the recently vacated tables and pushing in chairs. I asked him about the store’s opening, and he replied that they had been very busy and had gotten wonderful feedback from the guests. Momenirad also pointed out that the store’s extensive menu is smaller than that of the corporate stores. Finally, while I was thoroughly stuffed, I wanted more insider info on recommendations. “My favorite is a deconstructed samosa. These three things: the deconstructed samosa, Kathie Roll and Sexy Fries, they’re really good,” he said. “The two things that are really famous on the drinks menu [are the] mango lassi, that you got already, and the ginger-mint lemonade.” I thanked him and ordered a deconstructed samosa to go.
I didn’t regain my appetite until the next day because the Ghee Makhni Butter bowl had been so filling, but when I finally got to the deconstructed samosa, which I heated up in my oven, it too was delicious. Sorry folks, but by the time I’d gotten home, the dish, in the box, was no longer photo-worthy [motorcycles tend to vibrate beauteous culinary displays right outta whack], but the very large portion had included what looked like a samosa gone supernova — exploded and left with a few mini samosas in orbit around the fallen star. Also, as with the previous dish, this was so filling that I didn’t need to eat again that day. On my next visit, I’m going to have to try that tikka masala burrito with some ginger-mint lemonade.
Curry Up Now at Irvine Spectrum is open Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m., and until 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.. For details on their takeout and catering options, curryupnow.com or give them a call (949) 932-0513.