In early November, Dhruba Kunwar began serving Indian and Nepali street snacks like pani puri, pakoras, and momos at India’s Chaat House on 22nd Street. Next door, his wife, Mina, stands behind the counter of a small Indian grocery store selling the ingredients for such fare.
“Since we have that store, I always wanted to open the chaat house,” said Kunwar, who opened Indian Spices & Groceries with a friend in 2019.
While his snack shop is the first chaat-focused eatery in the neighborhood since Bombay Bazaar closed in 2010, it’s not the first Indian grocery in the Mission. Harp Singh opened his Indian market at 1546 Guerrero St., near 27th Street, in 2018.
As it turns out, Kunwar and Singh are part of a wave of new Indian stores and restaurants. Since 2016, at least 13 South Asian restaurants have opened in the Mission District alone, creating a thriving scene for a range of cuisines that historically have been lumped under the umbrella of long-established favorites like Pakwan and Udupi Palace.
One can now walk down Valencia Street and pass a Nepali restaurant serving momos (Nepali dumplings) and cocktails, Indian-Mexican fusion fast food and, at 21st Street, a biryani joint with high-top tables and bar stools, South Indian fare on stainless steel dishware, and Pakistani-Indian fine dining.
At 22nd Street, you hit the mother lode: Kunwar’s chaat-and-grocery, Aditi’s South Indian cuisine, and Deccan Spice, a chain South Indian restaurant. Mission Street boasts a pan-South Asian restaurant, and Nepali tapas can be found at Folsom Street.
What’s driven the increase? A jump in Indian residents, more international local palates, and attractive rents, owners say.
South Asian growth
When he arrived in San Francisco in 2010 from the north Indian state of Punjab, Singh said he’d “never seen Indians.” Since then, he’s noticed a huge increase in South Asians moving to the city. His customer base is close to 75 percent South Asian, many of whom stop through the neighborhood because of its convenient location within the city.
An interactive map of the Mission’s South Asian restaurants and groceries
Click on the pins above to read our reviews of the Mission’s South Asian businesses. Map by Eleni Balakrishnan. To view in full screen, click here.
Indeed, San Francisco’s Indian population grew to about 20,000, or 2.3 percent of the city, between the 2014 and 2019 American Community Surveys — a jump of more than 50 percent.
The Mission’s Indian population — also about 2 percent of residents in the 94110 zip code — grew by 70 percent, from 973 in 2014 to 1,657 in 2019.
Singh first opened his store in Pacific Heights in 2016, but he quickly realized that the Mission is a renter’s neighborhood and its density meant more opportunities for fellow Indians to move in. By 2018, he was one of those and moved his store to the Mission.
Azay Khadka, who owns Mission Curry House on Mission Street and other Indian restaurants around the city, noticed something similar. When the pandemic hit, many of his loyal customers left town, but South Asians were “flocking into the city,” a condition of lower rents, he surmised.
But while South Asians are indeed more plentiful, many restaurant owners in the Mission say the majority business comes from white and other local diners.
“Indian” isn’t just Indian
“People fell in love with this food,” said Emmanuel Eric, a Pakistani man and 42-year San Francisco resident who opened Biriani House at Valencia and 21st streets in March after running two other restaurants across the bay. “As the community grew and people got to know the flavor of the food, it was not hard to prosper in this business,” he said.
When he moved to San Francisco, Eric said, there were two restaurant options for South Asians missing the taste of home, and they were very high-end and expensive. Now, at Biriani House, which he runs with his four brothers, he aims for a mid-level affordability.
Suraksha Basnet, meanwhile, has been working to spread Nepalese food in the San Francisco community: She opened Dancing Yak in 2018, Base Camp in 2019, and recently got a lease on a new spot downtown for a momo joint.
“Nepal for some reason, it’s always been looked at under the umbrella of India,” said Basnet, who is doing her part to change that. “A lot of restaurants that even say ‘Indian food’ are actually owned by Nepali people … They weren’t confident that people would be aware of where Nepal is, whether their food would sell.”
Basnet advertises all her restaurants as Nepali. And over time, she said, people have begun to recognize and appreciate the dishes traditional to Nepal like chow mein and chatamari.
At first glance, Mission Curry House, opened by Nepali immigrant Khadka in 2019, seems like one of those spots disguising itself as a standard Indian restaurant. But Khadka has a different angle: Mission Curry House can quench all your South Asian food cravings from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean in one stop. “Vegan, gluten free, everything, just you name it,” he said.
Moving into the Mission
Khadka said he is happy about the growth in South Asian options in the Mission. Competition helps him to understand “where we are lacking … that will give us the chance to improve,” he said. So far, his business hasn’t been harmed.
Seeing other Indian restaurants succeed in the Mission gives aspiring business owners more confidence to follow suit, said Raj Manavalan, an investor in Aditi Indian Cuisine, which also opened in 2019.
“They see that there are already existing businesses who are doing good,” Manavalan said, “So that will give more confidence to another Indian restaurant owner.”
Many of the businesses born during the pandemic, like Biriani House, India’s Chaat House, and Basnet’s upcoming momo spot, are a testament to that boost in confidence: The owners simply decided to take the plunge as storefronts opened and rents dropped.
“We should be proud of people loving our food and appreciating our food,” said Surinder Dhillon, who opened Tadka Indian Restaurant, Pizza and Sports Bar with his wife in 2020. “That’s why people are jumping into it and opening up a lot of restaurants.”
In addition to the rental opportunities, many of the new business owners saw the Mission as the obvious choice to start a business.
First, there’s the neighborhood itself: walkable, sunny and flat. Then there are the people, willing to try food from around the world. “Lots of things are happening if you see Valencia Street … it’s a lively neighborhood,” said Manavalan.
He’s looking for another neighborhood in San Francisco to open a second location of Aditi Indian Cuisine, but said he’s struggling to find a place quite like the Mission.
Disclaimer: The data from the American Community Surveys is not exact, and shows a high margin of error.