"The Chipotle model doesn't work anymore, unless you're Chipotle," says Biju Thomas, owner of Biju's Little Curry Shop in the Berkeley neighborhood.
So Thomas decided to get rid of the point-and-order service that's been the model since Biju's opened five years ago in RiNo (Thomas shuttered that one last fall after the lease ended). Last month, he closed his restaurant at 4279 Tennyson Street for a week and remodeled the dining room just enough to give guests a new experience. Customers will still order at the counter, but they won't have a row of bins filled with toppings and ingredients to navigate. Instead, they'll just order from a menu that ranges from salads to stuffed roti (flatbread) to chicken, beef and veggie curries. All told, there are about a dozen options, so choice won't be an issue. Returning favorites include beef curry with potatoes, coconut chicken curry and Kerala fried chicken. And all of them offer the same riot of flavors and textures that has been the Biju's signature since day one. There's also a new coriander-crusted steak dish for those who want something a little high-end.
The menu's B-side offers small plates and desserts, including several enticing new Indian street-food specialties. Biju's dosa comes as a rice-flour crepe — shatteringly crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside — stuffed with masala potatoes and sided with vibrant coconut chutney and saucy sambar. Unlike the paper-thin, monstrous dosas found in some parts of India, these dosas are a little thicker, so they soak up the sauce from the filling, and are portioned more appropriately for lunch or dinner for one. Vada pav, a Mumbai favorite, are fried potato balls served on slider-style buns; expect a blend of spicy, sweet and cooling chutneys to make each bite pop. "This has all the colors of India," says new chef Taj Cooke.
Cooke has also introduced banana fritters for dessert. "This is my grandmother's recipe," the chef notes, "only I was challenged to make it gluten-free." Cooke deep-fries whole bananas in their skins before peeling them and adding them to a rice and chickpea flour blend to make the fritters. "You'll get banana bread flavors, but also a whole lot more."
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The chef notes that he grew up vegetarian and didn't eat meat until he was ten years old, so his background is well suited to Biju's style of Indian cuisine, in which many dishes are already vegan or vegetarian, or can easily be made so. Cooke's grandmother moved from Bangladesh to Jamaica to start a family, so he was raised on the bold flavors of Indian-Caribbean cuisine.
For the first time, Biju's is rolling out brunch, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. Most of the flavors will be familiar to Biju's regulars, but new items include vindaloo bacon with scrambled eggs and masala potatoes; crisp tofu with sweet plantains, potatoes and coriander chutney; and a South African classic called "bunny chow": hollowed-out bread filled with a choice of three curries.
Thomas says the menu and dining room changes are intended to add value while providing more elegant platings than the heaping bowls that had previously been the standard. One thing that hasn't changed is the owner's commitment to serving a delicious array of South Indian cuisine tailored for modern restaurant crowds.
Biju's Little Curry Shop is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch, 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for brunch on the weekends. Call 303-975-6886 or visit the restaurant's website for details.