Flavorful Fusion At 23rd St. Cafe
The eatery, which originally started in 2005 but has been run by current owner Gopal Sood since 2008, is known for its Indian-Mexican fusion menu.
“Originally, we had Mexican food and American food,” Sood explains. “About two years ago, one of the [USC] students gave [me] the idea of having Indian fusion food. Because the Korean taco trucks were in the news at that time, he told me I should do ‘Chicken Curry Tacos’ or ‘Chicken Tikka Tacos’ … I started to expand that [fusion] menu and added the ‘Chicken Tikka Masala Quesadilla,’ ‘Chicken Curry Burrito’ and ‘Chicken Tikka Burrito.’ All of a sudden, our Indian-Mexican fusion became our signature item.”
The Indian-Mexican fusion has indeed become the Café’s trademark, drawing in curious new customers and keeping the regulars coming back for more.
“It’s really interesting because it’s a café, but it has all this great Indian food,” says Salim Lemelle, a recent graduate from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “It’s very unique and different; there’s not a lot of places like this.”
The Café’s eclectic cuisine is only one reason for its popularity. Sood says that every dish is cooked with the freshest ingredients possible.
“Our sauces, our chutneys … we make everything fresh from scratch,” Sood says. “We don’t buy canned stuff. All our Indian and Mexican sauces are fresh; even our enchilada sauce is not canned sauce. Our Mexican rice is pure vegetarian; there’s no meat flavoring in there. I’m very critical of our food. I want to make sure that if people are driving long distances just to come to us—there are no other eating places [on this block], so if people come to eat here, they’re coming specifically for 23rd St. Café—we need to provide an excellent meal and excellent customer service.”
For those who are a little wary of fusion cuisine, 23rd St. Café includes separate American, Mexican and Indian menus as well. Besides the “Chicken Tikka Masala Quesadilla,” the assortment of breakfast burritos on the Mexican menu—including bacon, sausage, ham, turkey and chorizo burritos—are customer favorites. Each breakfast burrito comprises the customer’s choice of meat, melted cheese, scrambled eggs and a billowy layer of hashbrowns that border the tortilla’s interior. The entrées come in generous portions and customers definitely get what they pay for.
In addition to the delicious food, Sood says many customers come to 23rd St. Café for its quiet, homey ambience. Tables are located from the Café’s entrance all the way to the back of the eatery — customers can opt to sit near the register and kitchen, close to the flurry of activity, or further inside the Café, where it’s quieter. The eatery’s free Wifi and hours—8 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily—make 23rd St. Café a convenient study spot for USC students as well.
“It’s like a Starbucks without the rest of the people,” says Andrew Stern, a music major at USC who first came to the Café about two years after hearing friends rave about it. “There’s free Wifi, you get to hang out; he [Sood] makes a cool environment for you to study in.”
The Café’s interior décor indeed makes it seem like the perfect home away from home for the USC student. The walls are painted in strikingly similar colors to the USC Cardinal and USC Gold and are adorned by posters from various USC sports teams. Looking around at the Café, Sood laughs, and says the décor was merely a coincidence.
“When I took over this business, this place wasn’t presentable,” he recalls. “The first thing I did was I installed a counter and I painted the walls … and after I did, I thought, ‘It looks just like USC colors!’ It was not in my mind to do so [intentionally]; these are just my two favorite colors. I had no clue [they were USC colors] because, at the time, I was not familiar with USC: I had never been on campus; I had never seen a Trojans game. But I guess it was meant to be this way ... and when USC sports teams came here, they started to bring me their posters because they used to hang out here a lot. They all signed them and I framed them.”
USC students continue to comprise about 99 percent of 23rd St. Café’s clientele, something for which Sood is extremely grateful. USC is one of the largest employers in the community, which helps business, and regular customers often become like extended family for Sood.
“It’s [the Café] like a social hangout,” he says. “Many students come over here for different reasons — to chat with me and for mentoring. Students give us [our business] so much love and support … I cannot show my gratitude to them in words. The only reason why we are here is because of the students. If students didn’t come here, I would not survive and my employees would not have food on their tables.”
As appreciative as he is of his clientele, Sood hopes to continue to raise awareness for his Café. In an effort to do so, whoever “likes” 23rd St. Café’s Facebook page is automatically eligible in a drawing for a $20 gift card to the Café. Five individuals are selected randomly every month to receive the gift cards.
“The biggest challenge here is because we’re not so close on main streets like Figueroa, which are close to the USC campus, a lot of students don’t know about us,” Sood says. “Sometimes freshmen don’t find out about us until their senior year. Yet, when others [students] look at our location on the map, they think we are too far, but actually, we are not that far from campus — we are one block north of Adams Boulevard.”
Sood’s main goal, though, is to ensure the health and life of the Café overall.
“My continued coal and my constant challenge is to maintain it [23rd St. Café],” he says. “Building a business is challenging, but once you have a good reputation in the community, the next challenge is to maintain it. So that’s my constant challenge — to make sure everybody’s happy and that when everybody walks through these doors, that they leave with a positive experience with us.”
Reach Kelli Shiroma here.