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How Riverside’s Progressive Stance On Licensing At-Home Restaurants Helped This Immigrant Family Stave Off Homelessness

11:55 AM PST on November 17, 2021

    When Kulwant “Kimi” Sanghu first began selling her famous home-cooked meals in Riverside, she had no idea that what she started out of necessity would eventually snowball into a full business. All being managed and run by her family from the comfort of their casita (home). 

    Sanghu and her family are behind Cali Tardka, one of Riverside’s first licensed at-home restaurants, where for the past three years, they have been serving up traditional and fusion-style Indian food. But before their creamy chicken tikka masala and butter chicken combo plate became famous on TikTok, the family said they were on the verge of homelessness.

    Sanghu shared that the family went through financial struggles for years, often having to go from home to home. The at-home chef and mother of two said their journey to success has been far from easy. 

    “We didn’t have a stable home, our renter kicked us out of our previous home, and money was just not coming in, and we didn’t want to leave another house and start all over again because it is not easy, we needed to do something to help us out,” said Sanghu. One night Sanghu’s son Manav went up to his mother. He suggested that she start cooking samosas, a baked pastry filled with potatoes, onions, peas, and other vegetables often served with a vibrant green mint-flavored sauce and sweet and tangy tamarind chutney. So they did. 

    Kulwant “Kimi” Sanghu preparing food in her licensed home kitchen. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
    Kulwant “Kimi” Sanghu preparing food in her licensed home kitchen. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
    Chicken Tikka Fries. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
    Chicken Tikka Fries. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
    Garlic naan being toasted.
    Garlic naan being toasted. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.

    “I told her ‘your food is good!’ and she got excited, and we eventually started an Instagram and Facebook account and started posting the food that we’d make here at the house,” Manav said of that night. “I thought, who doesn’t want to get food from an immigrant mom? They cook some of the best food.” During this time, Sanghu worked a full-time job during the day and cooked meals in the evening when she got home from work. She said that everything was going great for the first three months, people were enjoying her food, and the orders were coming in. But then, due to someone’s complaint, the health department shut her down. 

    Before deciding to look for another job, she consulted with her customers about committing full time to Cali Tardka. And her followers had her back.

    “I didn’t understand how they could shut us down. We were just cooking, not harming anybody, the food is clean, and everyone is liking it, but we needed our permits,” she said. After doing some research, the 48-year-old chef decided to begin the process of becoming an official business. She said that alone was emotional and draining. She remembers often calling to check on the status of her paperwork when finally, in July of 2019, they became the first licensed at-home restaurant in Riverside and, at the time, the second in the state. 

    And although she was terminated from her job a year later during the height of the pandemic, she chose to look at the situation not as a setback but as the push she needed. “It was like a sign to start doing this full time, and now I’m my own boss,” she said with a huge smile on her face. 

    Before deciding to look for another job, she consulted with her customers about committing full time to Cali Tardka. And her followers had her back. They all cheered her on and reassured her that they would be there to support her and her family. “At first, I was thinking I’m not capable of doing this. I was doubting myself but my son just said do it, and we did,” she said. “Cooking is my hobby. I love to cook. Back in India, I used to like watching my grandfather cook at his restaurant, and now I have my own.” 

    She said her family solely runs her business. Each member has a role: her husband, who’s often at work, is in charge of groceries, while her son and daughter Priya help their mother take and package orders. By 10 AM, 20-year-old Manav posts the menu and specials of the day on Instagram and Facebook, and by noon, they begin to roll out their orders. Watching them in the kitchen reminded me of how taqueros run their stands. Everyone is in sync and knows their job, except you have spoonfuls of creamy tikka masala sauce instead of flying salsa. 

    They describe their food as straight-up Punjabi, and rightfully so, seeing as Sanghu grew up in Punjab in northwestern India. 

     

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    A post shared by Cali Tardka (@calitardka)

    Often on their menu are some of their customer’s favorites, like the “Greg Special '' which comes with a warm and cinnamony half butter chicken, savory chicken tikka masala, basmati rice, hand-made garlic naan, and a samosa. Some of their other popular dishes include their version of carne asada fries called chicken tikka fries, their chicken Tardka burger, and they even serve vegetarian and vegan options. Sanghu said no matter how small or big an order is, each one comes with a free dessert, like their kheer rice pudding, which has a flavor similar to arroz con leche. 

    “We just wanted to make the food a lot creamier than some traditional Indian food. We want to make people feel at home the moment they take that first bite,” Manav said. “We want to make sure we let our food speak for itself.” 

    And the food has spoken for itself. Just last month, a family drove from Tijuana just to get their hands on some Cali Tardka. People from other states have also taken the trip to Riverside to buy these home-cooked meals, and most recently, the family served their food to TikTok’s famous “Familia Fuego.” Sanghu can't help but tear up anytime she looks back at their journey. “It hasn’t been easy, going from zero to here,” she said as her son consoled her. 

    For Sanghu’s daughter Priya, one of the most rewarding things to come of this has been seeing her mom gain her own independence. “The biggest achievement was making mom an independent woman, because before mom used to be like the typical Indian housewife, but now she has found her voice,” said Priya. 

    When asked about the future of Cali Tardka and if they ever plan on opening a restaurant in town, they said: “At this point, we have to, but that’s way further into the future.” For now, the family only offers curbside pick-up orders, and orders can be placed via Instagram as soon as the menu goes up, but Sanghu highly encourages folk to pre-order since they often sell out. 

    As they plated food on the table, the family expressed how appreciative they are of their customers for supporting them through all their highs and lows. Sanghu said it’s not all about reaching success. She said for them. It’s important to give back whenever they can because they know what it’s like to be on the verge of losing it all. And they have, during the pandemic they provided 3,000 meals to front line workers, and every year they feed the homeless on skidrow and Venice Beach passing out over 400 meals on holidays like thanksgiving. 

    Samosas.
    Samosas. Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
    Photo by Janette Villafana for L.A. TACO.
    All their food is make from scratch.

    For Sanghu’s daughter Priya, one of the most rewarding things to come of this has been seeing her mom gain her own independence. “The biggest achievement was making mom an independent woman, because before mom used to be like the typical Indian housewife, but now she has found her voice,” said Priya. 

    Sanghu agrees. She says her confidence has gone up, and she feels delighted that she has something of her own, and she encourages others to do the same, particularly other moms. 

    “For the moms, find your voice, and if you have a passion for something, just do it. It’s never too late. The beginning is always hard but keep going,” she said. “We put in almost four years of pure hard work, and we’re here to tell you it’s possible.”

     Follow @Calitardka on Instagram to keep up with their daily specials.  

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