Some of Birmingham’s best Chinese food is at the Shell gas station on Highland Avenue. The one next to Bottega.
But this is not just any Chinese food. It’s Chinese-Indian fusion that combines cultures and flavors in exciting, delicious ways we haven’t seen here before.
The dishes reflect what owner Rahim Budhwani and his family occasionally ate when he was growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai). There have been food trucks in India for a long time, he says. When he was 10 or 11 years old, he remembers going to them about once a month. The foods with culinary influences from neighboring China were favorites, something they longed for and looked forward to eating. One day, Budhwani’s brother, Karim, suggested he bring the Indo-Chinese concept here.
Budhwani, a businessman with an engineering degree, is the CEO of Encore Franchises LLC. He had originally entered the Birmingham restaurant market the way a lot of people have done – with a hot dog stand. He put a Sneaky Pete’s franchise in his Highland Avenue convenience store. But at the continued urging of family and friends, he and his wife, Kulsum, decided to put their dual culinary degrees to work on something of their own.
“We started playing with it a little bit here and there,” he says. “We started sampling some stuff out, and people really liked it. And I said, ‘Well, that’s a good start.’ And that’s how Little India was born – out of nowhere and a conversation with my brother.”
Budhwani and Kulsum opened Little India in January 2019 (sharing counter space with Sneaky Pete’s), offering “flavorful, healthy, made-to-order food at a reasonable price.”
They have a second, express location in Hoover at 3651 Lorna Road in the Citgo station near Best Buy. Chaat and Indian street foods are offered at the Hoover store Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Little India Birmingham on Highland Avenue is served by Grubhub and Waitr, but you can eat in if you’d like. The 300-square-foot eatery has a few colorful highboys and chairs and a counter in front of the convenience store windows near the Doritos and Cheetos.
There are familiar Chinese dishes here, such as hot and sour soup, Mongolian beef, shrimp-fried rice and Sichuan noodles, but they are different – lighter and brighter with noticeable Indian spices and ingredients like turmeric and tamarind, red chili powder imported from India, cardamom and saffron and garam masala. But then there also are dishes like Manchurian paneer that combine Chinese spices with the traditional Indian cheese.
“I think if you’re in for a different kind of cuisine, then this is your restaurant,” Budhwani says. “If you like flavor, then this is your restaurant. If you like freshness, then this is your restaurant. If you like healthy, this is your restaurant.” Prices range from $1.99 for a dessert to $3.99 for soup to $8.99 for an entrée. “Economics also plays a part,” he adds. “So it’s all here at this restaurant.”
The big flavors at Little India come out of a tiny kitchen dominated by a huge wok stove where Simran and Sergio ladle spices and sauces, and then shake and sear colorful stir-fry dishes over startling bursts of open flames. Peek behind Little India’s cash register (just to the right of the regular store register) and watch them work.
The menu features appetizers, soups, noodle dishes and stir-fried entrées (called gravy) served with steamed or fried rice. Noodles, fried rice and gravy come with your choice of protein: chicken, beef, shrimp, or paneer, which makes the dishes vegetarian. Everything is customizable. If you want something really hot, “volcano” is the word you want to use. If you want more veggies, just say so.
In any case, you’d do well to start with a samosa (chicken, beef or Punjabi-style) or with eight pieces of fish Amritsari, which is so popular in Punjab that you can find it in street-food stalls and in fine hotels. Fish fillets are marinated in lemon juice, salt, red chili powder, heeng, ajwain and ginger-garlic paste; floured with besan and maida and turmeric powder; and then flash fried. Dip them in the fresh, flavorful mint sauce or the sweet tamarind sauce seasoned with black salt.
The brightly colored chicken lollipops, served with a tasty chili sauce, are actually large chicken wings that have been cut in a way that makes them an excellent and exciting finger food. The hot and sour soup here rivals any other we’ve had in Birmingham. The thicker, creamier sweet corn chicken soup is quite tasty.
Mongolian gravy is a popular dish. So is the Kolkata-style gravy, a sweet and spicy mix of three homemade sauces. Try this stir-fry of eggs, peppers, beans, cabbage and onions with chicken.
The spicy sweet-garlic paneer is delicious. Order it “dry,” without so much gravy, as Kulsum does. (Gravy dishes, as expected, have generous servings of gravy, but even dry, there’s plenty of sauce for the fluffy steamed rice.)
Hakka noodles are similar to chow mein, and Singapore noodles are thin rice noodles bright with curry and fresh vegetables.
There’s smooth, rich mango lassi as well as hot Indian tea (masala, ginger, cardamom) and delicious Madras coffee. Sweets include cardamom-rich ras malai with bits of saffron on top; sweet paan (a betel leaf delicacy); and beautiful, floral-scented royal falooda with rose syrup; milk; fine rice vermicelli; sweet basil seeds; and homemade saffron, pistachio and cashew ice cream. It takes days to make.
On the weekends, and increasingly with the regular, weekday menu, diners at Little India on Highland can enjoy Bombay-style street foods like pav bhaji (thick, spicy vegetable curry served with a roll), ragda pattice (a dish of white peas and potato cakes that is part of the street-food culture in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat), dahi vada (lentil balls in a yogurt sauce topped with chutney), and papdi and samosa chaat.
If you’re lucky, you can try the dahi sev puri (made with yogurt) and pani puri (with a tangy, spicy herb-infused “water”) that absolutely must be eaten in one big bite; fans of these little, filled fried dough balls call them “bombs.” One explosive bite explains why.
(Follow Little India on Instagram or Facebook to see these Indian specials as well as the $5 lunch specials, usually a gravy of some sort – vegetarian and not – with steamed rice; these change daily, so you can try something new often.)
All these dishes – Indian or Indo-Chinese – are made with attention to detail and absolutely fresh ingredients.
“We try to get most of the vegetables from the local farmers’ markets,” Budhwani says. “All our meat is halal meat, so that way it’s basically good for everyone. The halal part is expensive, of course, but it brings the right flavor out of the product. So we try to use the top-quality products to get the right flavor and the right taste. We don’t compromise on the ingredients part of it, because we think that shouldn’t be done.”
They make their own sauces at Little India (including the soy sauces) every day, import the spices they need and cook every dish to order.
“It could be totally customized to the way you want it,” Budhwani says. “We’ll make it the way you want it because our purpose is to make sure that you are happy and satisfied when you leave. That’s how … I would like to be treated when I go somewhere. … It’s the same thing we want to offer our customers.”
All this happens right in the middle of a convenience store.
Budhwani knows a thing or two about the business of convenience. He served as chairman of the National Association of Convenience Stores, a global advocacy group for convenience and fuel retailing with more than 2,100 retailer and 1,750 supplier members from some 70 countries. During his tenure, Budhwani logged more than 150,000 miles traveling around the globe, meeting world leaders and bringing back delicious ideas for his stores in Birmingham.
“I went to India last month,” he says, “and I went specifically back to those same food trucks just to try the food, and it tastes the same as they cooked back when I was a kid.” He came home and made a few changes to some of Little India’s dishes so they taste more like what he remembered. “It had been a while since I’ve tasted that food,” says Budhwani, who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years. “So I came back and said, ‘OK, these things need to change. The rest is fine. Don’t touch it, because it’s better than what I had there.’”
While his customers might wish for more tables and an open kitchen instead of beverage coolers and chip stands, Budhwani says he is happy right now with his convenience-store locations. He’s exploring other fusion ideas including Mexican (think tandoori chicken with avocados in a taco shell). He has no firm plans, at the moment, to move his concept to a more traditional restaurant setting, but he gets requests frequently.
He is, however, planning to put a Little India food truck on Birmingham’s streets within the next few months.
For now, Budhwani is content to “bring the flavors of India in a different fashion to the people of Birmingham. I’m pretty proud of that,” he says, “because I think that brought business and culinary skills together while making it a profitable margin for everyone.
“And giving a different flavor that people were not used to – I think that’s what I’m really proud of,” Budhwani says. “And to do it in such a small footprint. I think that’s the best part. Because a lot of people said, ‘You can’t do it.’ And I said, ‘I’ll show you how to do it.’ And that’s how we did it. It worked out.”
2236 Highland Ave.
Birmingham, Alabama 35205
Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.