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In Memoriam of Indian Buffets

4:35 PM PDT on May 28, 2020

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he coronavirus pandemic has not only created a global economic recession, confused us about rent, and made dating weird, it has now devastated one of the greatest lunch pastimes in the City: All-You-Can-Eat Indian buffets. 

All buffets, actually, but for some of us, the reality of Indian buffets never reopening again cut deep.

Neverending piles of buttery basmati rice guaranteed to be silky, bottomless chaffing trays brimming with decadent chicken tikka masala, and just about all the samosas your body can handle in a single sitting. Just thinking about it makes me nostalgically full . Overdoing is part of the ritual. Indian lunch buffets are found in just about every city in Los Angeles because they’re so integral to dining here. It’s infused in L.A.'s eating culture, up there with all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue and Chinese buffets. When you leave, you don’t feel stuffed. You feel satisfied. Maybe you even feel slightly more cultured than when you entered. The spices used liberally in every single food item have a way of haunting you for the rest of the day.  

And here we are, gathered to honor the memory of a style of eating that was taken for granted. Is the loss of Indian buffets permanent? Will opening any sort of traditional buffet ever be a normal experience again? We already lost 97 chains of Souplantation, and if Las Vegas buffets are murmuring about reopening again but with conditions that may remove the thrill of eating a buffet, what hope do the Indian buffets of Los Angeles have? 

I called New Delhi Palace and spoke with Raj Sandhu, the owner of this 27-year-old Indian Restaurant along the Rose Parade’s route in Pasadena. The restaurant is known for its quality buffet during lunch rush and the always crispy pakora. The views of the San Gabriel Mountains and cilantro-laced garlic naan baked to order draw customers back. Raj captured the dire mood of how Indian restaurants are currently being impacted, notably how all buffets are in the no-fly zone, even after the final phase of reopening businesses, especially after the startling viral video out of Japan that showed how quickly germs can spread in a buffet environment

The views of the San Gabriel Mountains and cilantro-laced garlic naan baked to order draw customers back.

When I asked Raj what he believed his nearly three-decade-old buffet will look like after the pandemic phases out, his answer was warm, almost hopeful, and heartbreaking.

“Actually, it’s not going to be looking like much. The ways things are going with the business, especially with the COVID-19, we want people to be safe, and at this time I don’t think we are even within a year close to finding a cure.”

When they started doing lunch takeout specials instead of their usual two-decade-old buffet, that’s when Raj knew that things were taking an unpredictable turn. Keep in mind New Delhi Palace is known for its vegetarian-friendly buffet frequented by students from nearby Cal Tech and many Indian families who call the San Gabriel Valley home. 

“My uncle started this restaurant 27 years ago, and he passed it along to me. It’s special that it has run this long within the family and people can feel it. The history makes it more special and something people enjoy being a part of. Adding a buffet to New Delhi Palace was something people really wanted to have, and it quickly became a unique experience.”

I asked him about how business, in general, was going, hoping that Raj could give me some sort of good news. His kindness, the hope in his voice, and his family business deserved good news. Disappointment followed.

The conversation centered around the buffet had a tone as if he was saying goodbye to an old friend. A friend that left too soon, and in an unforeseen circumstance. We spoke on what he believed the outcome down the road looked like, once the pandemic ran its course.

“So right now, seeing how everything is and taking into account the waves of coronavirus and the safety of everyone coming in and out, one: It will be very difficult to continue our buffet, even if we have sanitizer readily available. And two: We simply don’t want to put other people at risk, the ones who come in. Then there’s our staff, we can’t put them at risk either. It’s just…” 

He paused for a good second. Raj’s voice was calm and gradual throughout our conversation, like a teacher happy to answer trivial questions that were probably asked before. He didn’t have to continue to for me to understand his acceptance that his old friend will no longer be the same, or perhaps, come back again. 

“I just don’t think our buffet will be coming back soon or ever. Even if the industry tries, I can’t see any buffets safely reopening in the next six months.”

I asked him about how business, in general, was going, hoping that Raj could give me some sort of good news. His kindness, the hope in his voice, and his family business deserved good news. Disappointment followed.

“Business is taking a huge toll. Restaurants where people come in for buffets—we’re all facing a huge toll. We don’t know what the next year or few months will look like. What we make now is less than 70 percent of what used to come in. I do think it’s because our biggest thing was our lunch and buffet. And now, especially since office buildings are closed around the area, food businesses where there’s a lunch rush, we’re all getting hit. Hopefully, it will change, and we can see what happens. I’m just praying that it goes back to normal.” 

We ended the call with Raj insisting to buy me lunch. I was floored by his generous offer. For a restaurant business struggling in the midst of a pandemic, his kindness remained apparent.

Ideally, many of us would like AYCE Indian buffets to revert back to normal. Perhaps, for the time being, the new normal is not having one.

After my phone call with Raj, I called one of my favorite buffets in Artesia, The India Restaurant, since Artesia is famed for being the epicenter of Indian food and culture in Los Angeles and Orange County. I spoke with a man named Mr. Vajaj, hoping he’d give me some better news. 

“I really don’t know when our buffet will open, it all depends on when the L.A. government says which is not looking good. Even if we do open, we cannot have a buffet, just dining. I really have no idea—it is up in the air.”

I asked Mr. Vajaj when he thought common dining would open, and his answer was similar. 

“Maybe the dining opens in June and July. I really don’t know. I didn’t know it would happen like this. I read that restaurants in Orange County are open, but L.A. County is so difficult. The business though, it’s so-so. In a way, it’s still there but not as good. We can’t bring in so many people to work, only four or five, so it’s like working with a family so that is good. I mean safer. Nothing about corona is good.”

Ideally, many of us would like AYCE Indian buffets to revert back to normal. Perhaps, for the time being, the new normal is not having one.

It’s just like Beyoncé said: Rest in peace, my true love, who I took for granted.

New Delhi Palace

950 E Colorado Blvd #205, Pasadena, CA 91106

(626) 405-0666

The India Restaurant

17824 Pioneer Blvd, Artesia, CA 90701

562-860-5621

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