In the RASA bowl aptly named, “Home Cooking,” turmeric ginger shrimp is combined with tamarind chili sauce, Indian rice noodles, green beans, mango salsa, coconut powder, mango coconut yogurt and—the important part—Grandma Chillikkattil A. Pushpavathy’s tamarind ginger chutney.
Grandma, or “Ammamma,” immigrated to the Washington area from Irinjalakuda, Kerala in 1988 and prepared authentic, southern Indian dishes, first for her son, chef K.N.Vinod, who co-owns Indique and Bombay Bistro with his partner Surfy Rahman, and then for her American-born grandson, Rahul Vinod, who now co-owns the fast casual Indian restaurant RASA with lifelong friend Sahil Rahman, Surfy’s son.
It’s one thing to impress this Indian foodie brood; Ammamma also intimidates.
“She’ll come [to RASA] from time to time and go around and taste the stuff to see if we’re living up to her,”Vinod says.“So far, so good [but] she’s a tough critic … It does make me sweat a little bit when she’s coming in, trying everything.”
Apart from the unnerving factor, she has a good strategy. Half the fun of RASA is sampling a range of their bold, flavorful bowls with peppy, punny names like “Tikka Chance on Me,”“Caul Me Maybe” or “Aloo Need is Love,” that range in price from $9.86 to $12.59. The dishes are available for delivery from GrubHub, UberEats, Caviar and Doordash.
Even for those shy of Indian food, the simple menu and optional build-your-own approach—as fellow District-based fast casual restaurants CAVA and Sweetgreen have perfected — make the guest experience savory.
Intimidation of any sort is left to the owners’ psyche. But let’s be frank. Vinod and Rahman grew up with their Ammamma’s dishes, worked in their father’s restaurants, switched gears to Wall Street and consulting gigs in New York, then finally yielded to their food destiny to learn everything in the restaurant business back in Washington (including chopping onions for hours). Now, incorporating a data-based approach with their accrued knowledge, they are confidently moving ahead.
“The American palate is in a place where people are really excited and receptive to the flavors that we’re introducing,” says Rahman, who is taking the RASA formula and “scaling in a really responsible way that maintains the quality that we’re proud of,” with two new local restaurants. This month, a second RASA was scheduled to open in Mount Vernon Triangle; later this spring, a third was planned for Crystal City; though the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily placed this on hold.
In addition to tripling the restaurants, the RASA co-owners (both age 29) have won over a new supporter: former Washington Redskins tight end, VernonDavis.“Once I tried the food,I immediately fell in love,”says Davis, who is now a brand investor and identifies his favorite RASA dish as the one with chicken tikka, tomato garlic sauce, basmati rice, sauteed spinach, pickled radish, kachumber, pickled onions, toasted cumin yogurt and mint cilantro chutney. “I love the food, the concept, and more than anything the people.”
As for those other fast-casual restaurants that started here and successfully expanded, Rahman says, “we don’t see a reason why we couldn’t follow in their footsteps.” Go ahead and sniff that chutney a little longer, you may soon find yourself at RASA locations nationally. Because the vision of following in the family footsteps for these two just got taken to a whole new level.
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Eat Good, Feel Good
— As a result of the Coronavirus, RASA will be supporting the community by offering free take-out meals for school children (18 and under) and free meals for hospital workers with a valid ID, as well as free meals to their staff and families.
— The restaurant hires squad members through the culinary job training program at DC Central Kitchen.
— Certified as an Ocean Friendly Restaurant with the Surfrider Foundation, RASA is all wind powered and uses reusable foodware and compostable to-go products.
Through March 31, buy one RASA bowl on UberEats and get one free for you and your quarantine buddy. See more at https://www.rasagrill.com/.
Photos courtesy of RASA.