Way back in 1975, when hardly anyone around here knew what street food was, Vijay Agrawal took his first steps toward culinary success when he added bhaji pav – a popular Mumbai veggie curry dish served with white rolls – to the selection of his outdoor chaat (snack) cart in downtown Ahmedabad, India’s fifth-largest city.
People loved it, and before long Agrawal opened his first sit-down restaurant. He called it “Honest,” and the food was honest, and before long he had shops all over Ahmedabad, then all across India, prompting jokes about “The Indian McDonald’s.” Next they opened shops in Thailand; and then in 2016 his company opened its first U.S. Honest Indian Restaurant in suburban Chicago.
Less than four years later there are 14 Honest restaurants in eight U.S. states plus two in Canada. Louisville’s first Honest Indian Restaurant opened about a month ago, after several months of construction, in a large vacant space near South Hurstbourne Parkway and Taylorsville Road that had housed a long-closed Beverage Warehouse.
Like its near neighbor, the locally owned Shreeji Indian Vegetarian Street Food, Honest’s bill of fare is entirely Indian and vegetarian. But street food – simple but delicious ready-to-eat fare traditionally sold from carts and eaten outdoors – constitutes only a relatively small portion of Honest’s menu, which primarily features full dinner plates and sampler thali platters.
It’s a large room, with large windows across the front and white and beige walls around the rest of the space. Drum-shape pendant lights hang from a high ceiling with exposed metal rafters. Comfortable booths line the perimeter, with high-back chairs surrounding pale-tan wood-look tables in the rest of the room.
The large eight-page menu places its iconic bhaji pav on the first page, then goes on through more than 150 choices in an almost bewildering set of sub-categories such as pulav, Bombay chaat, Indian-style pizzas and sandwiches, South Indian, and Indo-Chinese specialities, and a long list of Punjabi dishes earmarked by gravy color: red, brown, green, and white! There’s a good selection of Indian breads, lentil dal and rice plates, thali (combo) platters, and even Indian desserts.
Pricing is attractive, with just about all the dishes priced within a narrow range from $5.99 to $9.99 save for the Punjabi specialties and thalis, which are tagged in the still-attractive range from $9.99 to $12.99.
Papads (99 cents) aren’t offered as a complimentary snack, but we ordered one of these cracker-thin fried lentil wafers for tradition’s sake. It was a good example of the genre, crisp and shattery, dotted with tiny bubbles and bits of crushed spices. It was slightly greasy from frying in oil, but its haunting earthy lentil flavor was just right.
Then we moved on to bhaji pav ($8.99), pictured at the top of the page. It’s the street-food dish that made Honest famous. It was a spicy reddish-brown mix of vegetables and curry spices blended in a thick, spicy-hot puree, topped with fresh cilantro, with a pair of square white toasted buns, chopped red onion, and a lime wedge alongside. I sprinkled onions and squeezed lime on the curry and ate it with delight, scooping up the curry (bhaji) with pieces of the bun (pav).
Honest offers three heat levels – mild, medium and hot – and did a good job of respecting those requests. The pav bhaji was hot but not painful. Our other dishes, ordered medium, packed pleasant but not challenging heat.
Punjabi thali ($10.99), pictured above, is a sampler of Northern India’s Punjab region. It came on a large shiny round metal plate holding small portions of ten items: paneer tikka, channa masala, yellow lentil dal, yogurt raita, basmati rice, lime pickle chutney, red onion, a tomato slice, half of a papad, and a small gulab jamun for dessert.
The chickpeas in the channa masala were large and firm, cloaked with a gently spicy reddish-brown masala sauce. Paneer tikka contained several cubes of mild Indian paneer cheese in savory orange sauce. Dal was thin but flavorful; raita was smooth and cooling, and the rice was wonderful, every grain dry and separate and perfectly cooked, full of spice seeds and cilantro. It also came with excellent roti, puffy whole-sheet flatbread dotted with dark-brown charred spots from the grill.
To bring some leafy green veggies to the table, we ordered aloo palak ($9.99), a traditional potato-and-spinach curry. The potatoes were good, tender but not mushy, covered with a thick, dark-green, mildly spicy spinach puree.
My usual appetizing antidote to the fire of Indian spice is yogurt lassi ($3.99), preferring the salty plain version to mango or sweet alternatives. Honest’s lassi was excellent, not too thick, with cumin and pepper flavors and a cilantro garnish to add flavor interest.
A filling meal for two came to $32.82, plus a 20 percent tip calculated by our server’s portable card reader.
Robin Garr’s rating: 86 points
Noise level: With the room less than half filled for a late lunch, noise was minimal in the large shopping-center space. (Average sound level was 72dB, in the range of normal conversation.)
Accessibility: The entrance, restrooms, and tables except for booth seating appear fully accessible to wheelchair users.