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Mexican and Masala 

Taqueria Martinez hosts Indian pop-up

click to enlarge Jaswinder Kaur Malhi and her daughter Tanvir Kaur by the Taqueria Martinez truck.

Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jaswinder Kaur Malhi and her daughter Tanvir Kaur by the Taqueria Martinez truck.

The bright flags staked around the Taqueria Martinez truck parked beside A&L Feed at 2314 Central Ave. in McKinleyville advertise tacos and burritos. So does the truck itself, emblazoned with pictures of asada fries and tortas. But above the order window through which Miguel Santiago Martinez is taking lunch orders, there hangs a paper menu offering a handful of Indian dishes — flatbreads and stewed bean dishes — priced between $5 and $12. Beside the truck, a large dispenser filled with hot chai sits on a table covered with a brightly striped sarape beside the day's aqua frescas.

By the same table stands Jaswinder Kaur Malhi, who is testing the waters for an Indian food truck of her own with a low-key pop-up on wheels. Rather than a full takeover, on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., the Taqueria Martinez truck in McKinleyville will be serving her Punjabi specialties alongside its Mexican menu. The pairing seems less improbable than there being but one Indian restaurant, Eureka's Tandoori Bites, currently operating in Humboldt County, and downright probable when you consider it began with the sharing of food between friends.

Martinez, originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, opened his popular food truck four years ago with his family, parking it in the street-facing corner of the Gas & Go at 1711 Fourth St. in Eureka. There he met Indian-born cashier Harjeet Malhi and the two struck up a friendship, eventually sharing food from home. Harjeet Malhi shared the traditional breads, rice and sabji (vegetable dishes) that his wife, Jaswinder Kaur Malhi, made. He also shared their hope of starting a food truck or possibly a restaurant someday. About a month ago, Martinez and the Malhis started planning a twice-weekly pop-up out of the Taqueria Martinez truck in McKinleyville to see if there was a market for her dishes.

Jaswinder Kaur Malhi, who also goes by Jessie, stands flanked by her daughter Tanvir Kaur and her niece Gigi Heer, who translate to and from Punjabi for her, as well as Jaswinder Kaur Malhi's sister Harjinder Heer.

"She's the one in charge of food at parties," explains Gigi Heer. That can mean cooking for 100 people or more, though Jaswinder Kaur Malhi regularly cooks for a crowd of more than 50 with other community members at the Sikh temple on Sundays. Everyone, she says, including her co-workers at Mountain Mike's Pizza, loves her cooking.

Jaswinder Kaur Malhi smiles at the praise, of which there's no shortage among the little gathering by the drinks table. Born in Punjab, she came to Humboldt County in 2016 with the sponsorship of her sister and her family. Jaswinder Kaur Malhi learned to cook at home growing up but, according to Tanvir Kaur, is still teaching herself with recipes and experimentation.

The whole family has pitched in on the effort, including "a lot of discussion, a lot of tasting," says Tanvir Kaur. "She says it's a new setup so she's still working on how to represent [the cuisine] in an authentic way." The straightforward brewed masala chai and soft fried vegetable and chickpea flour pakora will likely be steady options with rotating vegetarian main dishes and homemade yogurt to swirl on and dip into. Desserts may show up down the line and Tanvir Kaur assures her mother's custards and puddings are worth the wait.

On opening day, there were aloo parantha, deceptively humble looking buttered flatbreads made from slightly chewy whole wheat dough and stuffed with soft and spicy potatoes. The thick rajma chawal was smoky and rich with stewed kidney beans and tomato served beside cumin-fragrant yellow rice. There was more flatbread with the chole bhature, delicate and bubbly fried, to be torn and used to scoop up honestly luxurious chickpeas simmered with chiles, cardamom and turmeric.

And would it be such a clash to enjoy the subcontinental flavor profile with a cucumber and chia agua fresca? This may be the time to find out.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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