Some of Birmingham’s best Chinese food is at the Shell gas station on Highland Avenue. The one next to Bottega.
But this is not just any Chinese food. It’s Chinese-Indian fusion that combines cultures and flavors in exciting, delicious ways we haven’t seen here before.
After eating there several times, I wrote a story on Little India for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.
The dishes reflect what owner Rahim Budhwani and his family occasionally ate when he was growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai). There have been food trucks in India for a long time, he says. When he was 10 or 11 years old, he remembers going to them about once a month. The foods with culinary influences from neighboring China were favorites, something they longed for and looked forward to eating. One day, Budhwani’s brother, Karim, suggested he bring the Indo-Chinese concept here.
Budhwani, a businessman with an engineering degree, is the CEO of Encore Franchises, LLC. He had originally entered the Birmingham restaurant market the way a lot of people have done—with a hot dog stand. He put a Sneaky Pete’s franchise in his Highland Avenue convenience store. But at the continued urging of family and friends, he and his wife, Kulsum, decided to put their duel culinary degrees to work on something of their own.
“We started playing with it a little bit here and there,” he says. “We started sampling some stuff out, and people really liked it. And I said, ‘Well, that’s a good start.’ And that’s how Little India was born—out of nowhere and a conversation with my brother.”
Budhwani and Kulsum opened Little India in January 2019 (sharing counter space with Sneaky Pete’s), offering “flavorful, healthy, made-to-order food at a reasonable price.”
There are familiar Chinese dishes here, like hot and sour soup, Mongolian beef, shrimp-fried rice and Szechwan noodles, but they are different—lighter and brighter with noticeable Indian spices and ingredients like turmeric and tamarind, red chili powder imported from India, cardamom and saffron and garam masala. But then there also are dishes like Manchurian paneer that combine Chinese spices with the traditional Indian cheese.
“I think if you’re in for a different kind of cuisine, then this is your restaurant,” Budhwani says. “If you like flavor, then this is your restaurant. If you like freshness, then this is your restaurant. If you like healthy, this is your restaurant.” Prices range from $1.99 for a dessert to $3.99 for soup to $8.99 for an entrée. “Economics also plays a part,” he adds. “So it’s all here at this restaurant.”
Little India Birmingham on Highland Avenue is served by Grubhub and Waitr, but you can eat in if you’d like. The 300-square-foot eatery has a few colorful highboys and chairs and a counter in front of the convenience store windows near the Doritos and Cheetos.
On the weekends, and increasingly with the regular, weekday menu, diners at Little India on Highland can enjoy Bombay-style street foods like pav bhaji (thick, spicy vegetable curry served with a roll), ragda pattice (a dish of white peas and potato cakes that is part of the street-food culture in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat), dahi vada (lentil balls in a yogurt sauce topped with chutney), and papdi and samosa chaat.
If you’re lucky, you can try the dahi sev puri (made with yogurt) and pani puri (with a tangy, spicy herb-infused “water”) that absolutely must be eaten in one big bite; fans of these little, filled fried dough balls call them “bombs,” and one explosive bite explains why.
(Follow Little India on Instagram or Facebook to see these Indian specials as well as the $5 lunch specials, usually a gravy of some sort – vegetarian and not – with steamed rice; these change daily, so you can try something new often.)
All these dishes—Indian or Indo-Chinese—are made with attention to detail and absolutely fresh ingredients.
“We try to get most of the vegetables from the local farmers’ markets,” Budhwani says. “All our meat is halal meat, so that way it’s basically good for everyone. The halal part is expensive, of course, but it brings the right flavor out of the product. So we try to use the top-quality products to get the right flavor and the right taste. We don’t compromise on the ingredients part of it, because we think that shouldn’t be done.”
They make their own sauces at Little India (including the soy sauces) every day, import the spices they need and cook every single dish to order.
“It could be totally customized to the way you want it,” Budhwani says. “We’ll make it the way you want it because our purpose is to make sure that you are happy and satisfied when you leave. That’s how … I would like to be treated when I go somewhere. … It’s the same thing we want to offer our customers.”
While his customers might wish for more tables and an open kitchen instead of beverage coolers and chip stands, Budhwani says he is happy right now with his convenience-store locations.
He is, however, planning to put a Little India food truck on Birmingham’s streets within the next few months.
For now, Budhwani is content to “bring the flavors of India in a different fashion to the people of Birmingham. I’m pretty proud of that,” he says.
“And giving a different flavor that people were not used to—I think that’s what I’m really proud of. And to do it in such a small footprint. I think that’s the best part. Because a lot of people said, ‘You can’t do it.’ And I said, ‘I’ll show you how to do it.’ And that’s how we did it. It worked out.”
2236 Highland Avenue
Birmingham, AL 35205
Monday – Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday 10 to 10 p.m.