Rural southern Utah is cowboy country, and with it comes a deserved reputation of being a meat and potatoes kind of place. So after a recent three-day hiking trip in Bryce Canyon National Park, when Kim Johnson saw a sign advertising a Tandoori Taqueria, she pulled over immediately.
Johnson and her family, who live in Salt Lake City, are vegetarian.
“We’ve eaten a lot of Subway sandwiches [this trip],” she says, laughing. “And a lot of large side salads because it’s a pretty meaty environment here.”
Inside, the family grinned as they dug into heaping plates of cauliflower tacos, with garbanzo beans, smoky Mexican spices and tomatillo chutney.
“They’re not flavors we’ve had for the last few days in rural southern Utah,” Johnson says.
And that’s exactly the idea. Five years ago, Ripple Desai opened the Tandoori Taqueria in her hometown of Panguitch, which has population of about 1,500. The Tandoori Taqueria definitely stands out on the town’s short main drag among several mom and pop coffee shops and diners, a Family Dollar and NAPA Auto Parts store.
“I’m Indian, my parents are both from India,” says Desai, quickly adding, “And, I love tacos.”
Her menu is a fusion of traditional Indian dishes with that beloved Mexican staple — tacos. She uses naan bread as the tortilla. Over a busy recent lunch hour, customers packed the tidy dining room eating slow-roasted beef chorizo tacos topped with tomatillo chutney, spicy pozole with pork marinated in a turmeric dry rub and a dish called curry a la verazcruzana, chicken and garbanzo beans in a roasted red pepper sauce. Every dish is cooked to order in a small kitchen off the dining area.
“I wanted to do something completely different,” Desai says. “I wanted to make sure that you’re eating something unlike anything else you’ve had.”
The Taqueria mostly caters to tourists who visit Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks and the nearby Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Desai says she did get a few second looks initially from locals. But she was used to it. They were the only Indian family in a mostly white, Mormon town for most of her childhood. Her parents still own the motel they bought in the 1980s, down the street from the restaurant, which is in a building Ripple’s father also owned.
Desai recalls fondly begging her mom to make tacos as a kid — her mom mostly made traditional Gujarati dishes from her native state of Gujarat in India, lots of spices, lentils, vegetables and rice. She grew up learning to cook it.
“And that’s what my mom [still] makes every single day, even to this day,” Desai says. “That’s what I have when I leave here at 10 p.m. and go home.”
Her mom, Tarla Desai is always cooking, except when she stops into her daughter’s Taqueria for a snack.
“She samples everything,” Ripple says, adding that she’s always letting her know if her rice is too crispy or if a dish needs more seasoning.
It’s clear though that Tarla is proud of her daughter.
“She’s doing good, everyone loves it,” Tarla says. “She has a business mind and got the Indian cooking style.”
And Mom is playing another key role. Every winter when the tourists leave, she and Ripple’s father close up their hotel and travel, usually home to India. They return in the spring with spices in two 50-pound suitcases.
It’s what gives those tasty chicken tikka tacos that extra kick.