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February 18, 2014

Samosas on 53rd

This article was originally published on October 8, 1996 and was re-printed on February 18, 2014 as part of the Maroon’s historical issue.

Every morning at 10:30, Trushar Patel and his wife Anila burn sticks of incense over a tiny brass platter and pray to Ganesh, the Hindu God of Beginnings. With a firm Hindu faith seldom seen in times as widely denounced as decadent as these, the Patel family, in front of two paintings of Krishna, prepare to do business once the doors of their restaurant, Rajun Cajun, open for business.

For years the shoebox-sized lot at 1459 East 53rd Street, which houses Total Eclipse Hair Salon upstairs, existed as Cajun Joe’s Chicken Place, serving up Cajun and soul food in a fast food setting. The reputation of the place was rather bad, though, as the restaurant was not only typically in disrepair but also featured a clientele that tended to scare away other patrons.

Cajun Joe’s was familiar throughout the city, with its bright yellow and red colors on the inside, highlighted by a trim of orange and yellow neon lights in front of the mirrors running along the trim of the ceiling. The operation, however, folded about three yearsr ago, as the entire franchise went bankrupt, and the lot on 53rd Street stood empty.

At the time, Trushar Patel, who came to the United States in 1979, was the long-time supervisor of three McDonald’s franchises in northern Chicago. Having worked his way up the ranks in the McDonald’s corporation, Trushar hoped to own eventually his own McDonald’s franchise.

Originally from the Gujarat region of India, Trushar finished six years of college in India to become an electronic engineer. He said that the United States attracted him because of its promise of opportunity.

A devout Hindu who eats no beef and only occasionally chicken, Trushar said he realized the paradox inherent in his dream of owning a restaurant whose main product is beef. But he said he had separated business from faith, and considered financial stability more important.

After over a decade devoted to Ronald McDonald, Trushar realized he could never own his own franchise. He said that even though he had all the necessary qualifications, he was overlooked time and time again.

With his wish of owning a McDonald’s crushed, Trushar began pursuing the American Dream to its fullest. He wanted to be his own boss, and began to look around, eager to find a place where he could open his own restaurant.

Satisfied with his own ability to cook, Trushar figured he could create a reasonable base for an Indian restaurant. When the issue of its location arose, his brother Roy, a doctor at Mercy Hospital, offered some important advice. According to Roy, there was not a single Indian restaurant on the South Side (and certainly not in Hyde Park). Trushar found the empty Cajun Joe’s Chicken Place and moved in.

On December 9, 1993, Rajun Cajun (“Rajun” rhymes with “done” and means “king”) opened its doors to the Hyde Park public. Trushar kept one of the cooks from Cajun Joe’s, Mahbub Hussein, from Bangladesh. He is the soul food specialist, preparing the collard greens and Cajun fried chicken every day.

Trushar, however, was eager to inject a more defined Indian element into his menu. They homestyle cooking he enjoyed at home, prepared by him and by his wife, Anila, seemed destined for the stomachs of his patrons.

But the change towards an Indian menu at Rajun Cajun came slowly. Only now, in the restaurant’s third year, is Trushar changing the décor to reflect a more Indian flavor. Gone will tbe drawings of the French Quarter in New Orleans—replaced by hand-painted Indian works.

The recent months have brought other changes as well. During an interview, Trusher showed his new menus featuring Indian desserts. Brother-in-law and employee Sanjay Patel, from England, said the restaurant hopes to soon have a refrigerated display case for the sweets, encouraging customers to try them out.

Rajun Cajun signed on last year with Gopher’s, a delivery service for Hyde Park, and business has improved. Trushar appreciates the free advertising he gets from the affiliation, but instant name recognition, along the lines of that employed by Salonica, Thai 55, or the Med, continue to elude Rajun Cajun.

As a result, undergraduates at the University frequently remain ignorant that Indian fare is available in Hyde Park, for a very reasonable price, compared to vegetarian dishes at the Nile and at Casablanca.

When asked about the schizophrenic menu at the restaurant, featuring half Indian and half Cajun fare, and how it reflected on the business, Trushar said that about eighty percent of the patrons buy from the Indian menu, and even though Trushar would prefer phasing it out, the cajun food accounts for the necessary other twenty percent, especially during the day.

Of that eighty percent, Trushar said, about a third are graduate students and others affiliated with the University. The rest of his vegetarian/Indian business comes from catering to the U of C Hospitals and the Reynolds Cub and from the large Black Muslim population of Hyde Park.

The heavy vegetarian load puts a strain on Anila, who does almost all of the Indian cooking. Trushar’s specialty is the Tandoori chicken, but he still has to cook all of the vegetarian fare when Anila is out.

When asked about what he would eat if he were a patron at his own restaurant, Trushar said he would order the vegetarian combo meal, which comes with a samosa (pastry filled with potatoes, onions, garlic, and other spices), basmati rice, parotha (a skillet fried whole wheat flat bread), and two choices of spicy vegetables. His choices were the chana masala (chickpeas with spinach) and the mixture of green beans and lima beans in a subtle tomato curry sauce available that day.

Trushar emphasized the “homestyle” nature of his restaurant, reflected in what he gave as the most important reason for the restaurant’s survival in high-rent Hyde Park: his low overhead. His wife is the head cook at Rajun Cajun, and her brother Sanjay helps out when she is absent. When the restaurant was just starting, even Trushar’s brother Roy would come by to help.

Furthermore, everything available at the restaurant is served the same day it is cooked, which both Trushar and Anila consider a very important feature worthy of great pride. Other Indian restaurants typically cook two or three times a week, and then freeze whatever is not used. As a result, such things as low-quality twenty-cent samosas are possible at other establishments, said Anila.

Rajun Cajun still cooks in great bulk, though. Trushar boasted that his restaurant uses more than 100 pounds of potatoes a day. Also to maintain a certain variety to his menu, he rotates the spicy vegetable sides every two or three days.

Trushar also commits himself to healthier cooking. His food does not carry the same film of oil on top that similar dishes at other Indian restaurants would. A trim man, Trushar holds himself up as an example of the food’s health, saying that he eats his cooking seven days a week and does not get sick.

But, ironically, the homestyle cooking servces as the ultimate impediment to the future of Rajun Cajun. “We are not professional cooks,” Trushar said. Trushar and his wife cook as they would for their family. But to accommodate a varied Indian menu akin to the kind available in restaurants along Devon Street in the far North Side, Patel said he realizes that he would need a professional cook to cover everything, which is not currently possible.

Rajun Cajun patrons, to whom Trushar said he tries to listen as much as he can, urge him to pen a sit-down restaurant here in Hyde Park, different to the partly-intentional fast food feel of the current Rajun Cajun. After all, the patrons claim, Hyde Park can support over a dozen Thai places and pizza places so why not one Indian place? Trushar plans a sit-down restaurant for the future. However, one key obstacle still stands in the way.

Hyde Park, one of the most expensive rent districts of Chicago, puts a prohibitive chain around Trushar’s dreams of expansion. His current establishment is too small to accommodate the kind of restaurant he wants to open, and the long and narrow size of the lot doesn’t accommodate the sprawl that a typical sit-down restaurant needs. Even if the lot were appropriate, though, Trushar said he could not afford to close the current restaurant for the time it would take for a thorough renovation.

For now, it’s all a matter of faith and hope for the future. Trushar and Anila are encouraged by their young son, Nishil, who has to live with Anila’s parents in London as his own parents work hard to provide for him.

The Hindu gods Lord Krishna, Ganesh, and Laxmi, goddess of wealth, hang on the walls of Rajun Cajun and rest on the counter, casting a benevolent eye on Trushar and his work, and perhaps in these Indian gods Trushar will find the way to finally realize his American dream of not only being his own boss, but of owning his own sit-down restaurant—a source of stability for himself and his family.

For now, though, he will have to settle for offering one of the least expensive and most satisfying vegetarian meals in Hyde Park.

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