On the road, a taste of home

The Saini family’s Punjabi dhabas serve ‘good vibes only.’

Walking into Punjabi Tandoor, located in a strip mall in Carlsbad, about 25 miles north of San Diego, I’m struck by the contrast between the harsh fluorescent lights and the delightful fragrance of garam masala, onions and garlic. The owners already know what I want, ladling my favorite three-item combo into a Styrofoam container of curries heaped over fragrant jasmine rice. They pile on generous dollops of cauliflower and saag paneer. I dig into this quintessential North Indian fare, the taste immediately reminding me of home.  

Punjabi Tandoor, run by Bakhtawar Saini and his cousin, Jagdish, caters to Indian immigrants in Southern California, people working in software or biotech, like me, or studying at nearby colleges. Eateries like this have sprung up all over California, in strip malls, business parks and along the freeway rest stops where the old burger joints once reigned supreme. They serve the growing ranks of Sikh long-haul truckers who move produce, fruits, nuts and dry goods from California’s rich agricultural lands to the rest of the country and beyond. 


These establishments offer more than comfort food and a taste of home cooking. They also provide reassurance that while their patrons may be far from home, the food along the freeways exists to remind them of the way back.

Jagdish mans the large clay tandoor oven while his daughters take people’s orders and run the register. Two decades ago, on my first visit to their Mira Mar restaurant, I had asked Jagdish Saini about an Indian restaurant on Black Mountain Road. The restaurant served mediocre food, but he replied respectfully, “I want them to succeed.”

Saini family members at the Carlsbad, California, location of Punjabi Tandoor.

A religious Sikh, Jagdish isn’t interested in badmouthing his competition. Rather, he’s focused on what Indians term atithi devo bhava, or “the guest is God” philosophy. His customers, he says, bring him closer to divinity. 

Bakhtawar has now opened multiple restaurants, and I’ve been a regular customer at all of them. 

What diners and dives are to California freeways, Punjabi dhabas are to Indian highways. Growing up in Delhi, I was used to the dhabas lining our roads. Tiny ramshackle stalls with roaring burners, a fired-up clay tandoor, and perennially boiling milk tea on a separate burner: This was what late-night expeditions were about. Dhabas were not only for truckers and long-haul drivers, but also for college students, party-goers, travelers and anyone who needed a break, a chai, hot food and a place to rest. Typical dhaba fare includes bright chicken masala curry, thin rotis, paneer tikka, thick choley curry or spinach aloo alongside clay glasses of ginger chai. In India, it was comfort food; more than that, it was food that marked when we became adults, and our parents allowed us to drive long distances. At the dhabas, we were treated as grownups, making new friends and then moving away. The highways and rest stops and dhabas highlighted the newfound freedom of our generation.  

Before opening the doors on a recent Saturday morning in July, Bakhtawar Saini (right) and Sukhpreet Singh (left), prep for the day in the Carlsbad location's kitchen.

Sikh Punjabi agricultural workers brought the dhaba tradition with them when they came to California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were met with systematic discrimination in the form of anti-miscegenation laws and state land acts that denied immigrants citizenship grants and the chance to own land. The men were unable to bring their families from India, and so many married Mexican farmworkers, creating a hybrid community of about 2,000 people in the Bakersfield and the Yuba-Sutter areas. In response, local restaurants began melding Punjabi and Mexican cuisine, creating new dishes like the roti quesadilla and lamb burrito. The next wave of immigrants from Punjab came after the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. This time, entire Sikh families migrated, creating a “mini Punjab” with schools, gurudwaras and community centers in various California communities. 

Sikhism, which began in the 15th century, differed from the Hinduism and Islam that then prevailed in India; they accepted other religions and the equality of men and women, reflected in similar names, and they celebrated Guru Granth Sahib and the holy texts instead of idols. Sikhs have long been known as brave warriors who are also people of peace and faith, but they often faced persecution in India. Finally, in the 1980s, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale led an uprising and took over northern India, demanding a separate nation and the freedom to practice their religion. Faced with retaliation by the Indian armed forces, Bhindranwale and his followers took refuge in the Sikh house of worship in Amritsar, the Golden Temple. The Indian military stormed the temple in what became known as Operation Bluestar, killing Bhindranwale along with many of his followers and thousands of civilians who had come to the temple to pray. Trauma reverberated through the decades that followed.  

Satwinder Saini adds fresh samosas to the buffet in anticipation of the day's first customers.

Four months after the storming of the Golden Temple, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. This prompted even harsher reprisals: Over 2,800 Sikhs were killed in Delhi during just a few days, and at least 50,000 Sikhs were displaced from New Delhi and adjoining areas. The 1984 massacre sparked a mass migration of Sikhs from India to Canada, the U.S. and England. Sikh communities in the U.S. grew, and many Sikhs became truckers in California and the West. Before long, Punjabi dhabas were sprouting up at the rest stops along the I-10, I-5 and I-40 freeways. 

Punjabi Tandoor has three branches in San Diego: the closet-sized one in Mira Mar I frequented whenever I was homesick; a second one in a former sushi restaurant near Sorrento Valley; and a third one in Carlsbad, north of San Diego, in a strip mall across from biotech behemoths bustling with afternoon lunch traffic. 

Jagdish Saini is the co-owner of the Punjabi Tandoor restaurants.

Jagdish’s daughter, Satwinder, leads the cash register in the Carlsbad restaurant with a perpetual smile and an Americanized accent. Much like her family, she spends her free time at the San Diego gurudwara, since prayer and service are an important part of her life. Lucky, her cousin, a tall skinny young man with a thick Sikh turban and even thicker black beard, handles the tandoor, sticking the naan on the side of the hot oven and keeping an eye on the boiling chicken curry handi. Throughout the day, he fields customers’ questions about how spicy a “level seven” might be, or whether the navratan korma is a better choice than the choley today. 

On the restaurant television mounted on the wall, European football or cricket plays on mute. This is “desi timepass,” as we call it — sports, food and family. 

Satwinder fills up a container with lamb curry; the spices mixed with the creamy yogurt remind me of home every time. Lucky makes me a roti because I prefer it to naan. Jagdish quietly boils the tea; no Indian will say no to an offer of chai. 

The food is always the same, as is the service. And always, I am treated as family. 

The stove in the kitchen at the Carlsbad location of Punjabi Tandoor.

Bakhtawar Saini doesn’t talk about what it was like when he first came to California, back in the 1980s. Shrugging, he asks instead, “Have you tried food in all our restaurants?”

“Yes,” I reply. “Same menu, no?”

“That’s the idea. Whether you eat it in Carlsbad or Mira Mesa, the food tastes like from Punjab. Quality is what we look for.”

He adds, “It brings you back home. I’ve visited Italy, Germany, England — now here. I ate Punjabi food everywhere. The flavor’s the same.”

He isn’t talking about fancy gourmet cooking, but about the pure delight of comfort food. It’s the familiar smell that makes you want that saag paneer, returning you to your childhood. When you eat at Punjabi Tandoor, you belong. 

Jaspreet Kaur Saini helps customers choose from the buffet.

“Come again,” he says, inviting me back formally.

Later, I ask Lucky why Bakhtawar wouldn’t talk about the riots, Lucky shrugs, smiling, “Arre, it was so long ago,” he says. “I wasn’t even born. We focus on good — hard work, honesty. And the rest — baaki, rab jaane.” 

The rest, God will take care.

The head-down, model-immigrant trope continues, even though the individual stories remain untold. The Sainis and their Punjabi restaurants in America’s Finest City bring me that much closer to a conflict-ridden land I left three decades ago.

At the Mira Mesa Punjabi Tandoor register, a sign advertises a summer special on rose milk. It is also a celebration of Sikhism. A small sign below it proclaims, “Good vibes only.” 

In 1983, a year before the Sikh temple desecration, before Indira Gandhi was assassinated, before thousands of Sikhs were killed, before the family fled India, I sat in a hot and humid taxi next to Jagat Sudhar Gurudwara in Kolkata, the city my parents came from, a city we visited every summer to be with our cousins and extended family. 

Jaspreet Kaur Saini, Kamaljeet Kaur Saini and Satwinder Saini (from left to right) share a laugh as they wait for customers.

A Sikh boy — his hair in a tight topknot covered with a small handkerchief — knocked at the taxi’s window. “Dada, brother, yeh lo!”

The driver reached for a glass filled with a pink lassi-like sherbet.

Baba asked, “How much?”

“Nah, no money, sir,” the boy laughed, “it’s Guru Arjan’s shaheedi, we celebrate with chabeel, kachi lassi. We feed the hungry, and the thirsty. Want a glass?”

My father accepted the glass. Ma hesitated; unfiltered water can lead to upset stomachs, but Baba chugged his drink down. 

“Baah,” he said, in appreciation, “that was refreshing! Rose, yogurt, so nice.”

The boy took the glass back, yelling, “Sat sri akal!” Glory be to God. 

The drink, we later learned, brings respite to weary travelers even as it honors the Arjan’s martyrdom, remembering the guru who was executed by the Muslim emperor. He had asked his Sikh followers to defend their religion and live with dignity and honesty — a martyred guru who is celebrated with optimism by his followers, centuries later.

Baba’s stomach held fine. Behind us, the Sikh boy held up glasses of rose milk, spreading happiness.

For those of us who still miss home, a small Punjabi restaurant in Southern California run by a long-persecuted people is the closest thing to being there. 

Good vibes only. 

On a recent Saturday morning in July, Punjabi Tandoor co-owner Bakhtawar Saini enjoys a chai while waiting for customers at the restaurant's location in Carlsbad, California.

Madhushree Ghosh is the author of KHABAAR: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family, published in April 2022. Her work has been a Notable Mention in Best American Essays in Food Writing, Pushcart nominated and published in The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, The Writer, Longreads, Catapult, BOMB, Guernica, LA Review of Books, LitHub and others. She works in oncology diagnostics and can be reached at @writemadhushree and her website www.writemadhushree.com.

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