A new lunch truck has hit the streets of Milpitas, this one bringing the traditional flavors of India to nontraditional new world dishes. It’s called Tikka Bytes, a name that cleverly conveys their focus and approach.
Owner Prashanthi Mehta uses her own original recipes. Ask her what she did prior to Tikka Bytes, and you'll be surprised—she still works in IT at a local high tech company. In fact, some of her coworkers happened to arrive at the truck shortly after we did, and they were surprised to see her in there.
Her computing experience explains the double entendre “bytes” in the truck’s name. Her customers are Silicon Valley technology workers, a demographic she is intimately familiar with, and she seeks them out in their natural habitat near Cisco and many other tech sector employers, including mine.
Tikka Bytes launched in Milpitas last December. The truck doesn't come every day, but when it does, it is sometimes at Tasman and Alder, near the VTA Park & Ride lot near the Interstate 880/Milpitas light rail station.
This is only half a mile from my job. I’m a big fan of gourmet food trucks, so five of us made the hike over last Friday when Tikka Bytes Truck tweeted that it planned to be at its favorite Milpitas spot.
My co-workers and I walked over, enjoying the blue skies and mild temperature. Sidewalks are scarce among the tech company campuses here, so we trekked across parking lots and over lawns to reach our destination.
The truck is a standard boxy model, but it has a bright, eye-catching paint job featuring Indian farmland, colorful spice pots and Golden Gate Bridge images artistically melting together through digital processing.
The meaning of the design is clear: The truck brings the fruits of India to the shores of California with the help of Silicon Valley tech know-how. There were a few people in line ahead of us. This gave us time to study the menu.
Instead of a small number of set items, it offers an à la carte process. First you pick a “style”–the dish you want to eat, such as two tacos, a “naanwich,” or a rice bowl. The style determines the price, ranging from $3-$7. Then you pick your filling: chicken, vegetables, tofu or paneer (fresh cottage cheese). The last step is to add a sauce, choosing from varying flavor profiles and degrees of spiciness. (Calculating the number of possible customizable combinations is an exercise left to the reader.)
Tikka Bytes also offers side dishes, soft drinks and Indian beverages, such as chai (spiced tea) and mango lassi, a smooth and fruity yogurt drink. You pay, receive a numbered receipt and wait for your food to be prepared and your number called. You can help yourself to chutneys—intensely flavored condiment sauces—to kick up your meal even more.
The build-your-own approach is how Tikka Bytes achieves its cuisine fusion. The styles are not typical Indian dishes but rather are borrowed or adapted from Latino, Asian and American cultures, with an emphasis on easy-to-eat portability. The fillings and sauces, however, are 100 percent Indian, authentic flavors in inventive forms—a culinary allegory for the diverse Bay Area. We sat and ate on the low stone wall that circles the parking lot, in view of the magnificent eastern hills.
My colleagues had chicken naanwiches, which are sandwiches wrapped in rich, doughy naan bread. They tried the mild tikka masala sauce and the spicier shahi korma sauce. They also drank mango lassis.
I opted for a chicken tikka masala burrito. My burrito was expertly rolled in a green spinach tortilla and tightly wrapped in paper and foil. It passed the fundamental burrito test: it did not fall apart, even when I got to the knobby bottom. Marinated, grilled chopped chicken and biryani (rice) dotted with onions and peppers made up the bulk. The dominant flavor came from the tomato-based tikka masala sauce, which was surprisingly sweet and happily delicious.
The owner confessed that her tikka masala is controversial; some customers find it too sweet for their liking. In the big picture, though, all the sauce options are quite distinct from each other, so together they offer a full spectrum of flavor from sweet to savory. Something for everyone. I experimented with adding a few drops of mint chutney to my burrito and found it complemented the filling beautifully.
I interviewed my coworkers to get their impressions. Gene Kwon thought his chicken tikka naanwich was “OK, not great,” but a good value at $4.
Arjun Bangre was more positive about the same naanwich. “The taste was authentic, especially the sauces,” he said.
Kaustubh Pimputkar enjoyed his chicken naanwich, with the creamy, nutty shahi korma sauce, concluding, “I like what I ate.” He was disappointed that chicken was the only meat option, feeling the sauces would have gone well with fish or lamb. But he conceded that the vegetable and cheese fillings were good for vegetarians.
Christian Nerb had only a mango lassi but sampled the sauces and picked his favorite for a future visit.
After lunch, I chatted with Tikka Bytes’ operators.
Owner Prashanthi Mehta is from the state of Andhra Pradesh in the south of India, which is known for its intensely hot chili peppers. Mehta uses green and dried red chilies in her spiciest if-you-dare sauce, andhra shahi korma. I tasted it, and it delivered a smooth burn that started slow then rapidly rose before snuffing itself out with no lasting damage. I wouldn’t be able to eat a whole burrito with it, but on a small taco it would be a fun ride.
“I always dreamt of opening a restaurant,” Mehta said. Starting a food truck was enticing because of the low-entry cost. I paid for my lunch on Friday, but I will disclose that I got a free small sample of all the sauces over rice, and after I interviewed her, Mehta kindly offered me a free meal on my next visit as a gesture of goodwill.
Chuck Wilhelm became a food truck fanatic after going on a “food truck rampage” in search of the best taco in the South Bay. He has a background in telecommunications but jumped at the chance to work on this truck. He “does it all” for Tikka Bytes: prepping food, cooking, serving and scoping out new locations. He’s originally from Pennsylvania, which he joked is a “far, far west region of India.” My expectations for my meal were raised because Wilhelm reminded me of TV food celebrity Alton Brown.
Wang Chhu is the talented chef who completes the crew. He comes from Nepal and has 12 years of experience working in Indian restaurants. They shared with me some of the inherent challenges of the food truck business. Their menu listed a chimosa—a cross between a Mexican chimichanga and Indian samosa–and french fries with tikka toppings, and I was all set to order them both, but they were not available that day. Rice bowls weren't, either. The fried items were not available, because they had not been popular in prior outings, so they didn’t run the fryer on Friday. True to Murphy’s law, on Friday everybody wanted the fried items.
The rice bowls were pulled, because the staff expected poor weather to keep customers away, so Chuck only cooked a half batch of rice. The weather turned out pleasant and business was brisk, so they had to conserve the little rice they had. They sold out early. Time, experience and more predictable weather will improve their forecasting.
Mehta’s primary goal is to serve delicious food, but her secondary motivation is humanitarian. She commits to sending a portion of her profits to needy charities in India. Recently her funds and other collected donations were used to build a roof for an orphanage in Chennai. At one time, she considered starting her own nonprofit but decided it was easier to be a philanthropist. Less paperwork.
Tikka Bytes is a great addition to the burgeoning Santa Clara County food truck scene. The business is starting out strong, with plans for the future. Mehta intends to create a dinner menu and has had requests to offer chaat, authentic Indian street food. If you want to give Tikka Bytes a try, get its up-to-date schedule and location information from its website, tikkabytes.com.
There you will find links to the Twitter feed and Facebook page. Locations, menus and times are subject to change without notice; it goes with the territory. Tikka Bytes is working to get permits to expand to more cities, but let’s hope it always find its way back to Milpitas, where it first booted up.