OVERTON — Just a 30-mile drive from Kearney a restaurant in the Heartland felt thousands of miles away.
On a hot and humid, post-flood day last week, Hub videographer Ana Salazar and I sought to expand our palates and to capture beautifully colored meals at an Indian food restaurant in Overton.
We were excited to reach our destination as we drove through the heat down the highway with the windows down in my old Volkswagen Jetta that only provides air conditioning while driving at high speeds. With our bellies empty, we talked about what we might encounter because neither Ana nor I had eaten or at least fully tried Indian food.
I was raised in a rural community near Kearney and grew up mostly eating the farmer’s diet — meat and potatoes. Ana, an immigrant from Mexico, also grew up eating entirely different courses.
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When we arrived, Ana and I immediately went back to the kitchen. There, women wearing their dark hair tightly back in ponytails formed round balls of dough, quickly patted and rolled the dough flat. They then grilled the bread above an open flame on the stove until the dough puffed and browned. Other times they spread a vegetable mixture between the two “tortillas,” coated both sides with butter and grilled it on a flat pan.
Meanwhile, a man in a “USA” ball cap swiftly grabbed tickets from a young server. He then moved from a cutting board to the stove and from the stove to a table with more than a dozen brightly colored spices.
As he clanked the sides of several skillets he stirred in vegetables, poured cream and incorporated the spices. The stove top was covered in skillets filled with red, yellow, gold and green chicken, pork and vegetable dishes. Once he finished cooking one dish, he immediately began to whip together a completely different meal.
Taste of India owner Harry Chaudhary oversaw the kitchen staff, who seemed to work in synchronization to fill orders. The staff, mostly comprised of Chaudhary’s family, was making Punjabi dishes.
The women, Chaudhary’s mother, Maniben Chaudhary, and sister, Bhavana Chaudhary, had made the “tortillas,” as Chaudhary called them, into roti and paratha, which was filled with vegetables. Vishnu Patel, a friend from Chaudhary’s home-state, Gujarat India, had made classic Punjabi meals such as butter chicken, chicken curry and chicken tikka masala.
Though food from Chaudhary’s homeland is cooked differently, often times with more sugar, Chaudhary and his wife Shelly wanted to cook Punjabi food, which is served and known worldwide as Indian food.
“So basically if you go to any other country and you go for the Indian restaurant, you will find this type of food,” Chaudhary said.
And the Chaudharys have been serving Punjabi food since 2014 in the most unexpected place — a truck stop off of Interstate 80 near Overton.
Why would a business succeed in a place where beef is king?
Well, Chaudhary said that’s because many of the truck drivers passing through from New York to California are from India, and this is a convenient stop for them to fuel up and eat familiar food. Many of the truck drivers are repeat customers and often wait to fill their tanks until they reach Overton.
Rustam Rakhimberdiev is one such customer, but in early July he was surprised by floodwater surrounding Chaudhary’s business, Jay Bros. Truck Stop. But he took his chances, drove through the water and filled his tank with what he believes is the cheapest diesel fuel. Rakhimberdiev said the water was up to his door but he luckily got out without flooding his truck and with a full stomach.
Chaudhary trucked other customers in and out of the restaurant for six days while the parking lot was flooded.
“We were trying to keep ourselves busy instead of just watching water,” Chaudhary said.
I noticed this kind of hospitality when Ana and I were at the truck stop a week after the flood. Chaudhary and his staff were warm and welcoming and wanted to please us with their food. And the food didn’t disappoint us.
Ana tried the chicken tikka masala with boneless white chicken in tomato sauce and butter gravy. She said it was a good first-time introduction to Indian food. It was different enough but still had a familiarity to it. I went for a little bit spicier version, the chicken vindaloo with chicken cooked in spicy sauce accompanied by potatoes and onions. It was wonderful with naan dipped in the spicy gravy. And we stuffed our faces in delight while 1970s Bollywood music videos played throughout the restaurant.
Ana and I both I agreed, the short trip was worth the drive for a cultural experience from the other side of the world.