How Portland’s Most Jaw-Dropping Kati Roll Gets Made
It is an impeccable reiteration of the classic with each creamy, crispy, tender, spicy, sweet, and sour element forming a heck of a magical bite—especially when washed down with a glass of Bollywood Theater’s warm chai.
All photos by Javier Cabral
What would you get if you applied Chez Panisse's locally sourced, ingredient-driven, DIY, fine dining sensibilities to an Indian restaurant in the Pacific Northwest? (Which, by the way, was scientifically proven to be one of the most complex and delicious cuisines on the entire planet.)
Portland's Bollywood Theater, that's what.
This year marks the restaurant's fourth in business. It was a long and winding road, paved with double-standards that constantly place Indian food in the "cheap eats" category—and slowly breaking out of them—to get here.
Troy MacLarty—chef, owner, and former cook at Chez Panisse who found his deep love for Indian food while living off Berkeley's Indian restaurant scene on a line cook's salary—owes a fair amount of his business's success to one item: a kati roll. A classic street food in the streets of Kolkata, Bengal, it's a convenient flavor bomb combo of kebab meat or paneer cheese, pickles, and chutneys—all wrapped tight in a flaky paratha bread. However, just as Chez Panisse's cuisine is deceivingly simpler than it seems, so is this sandwich.
"This is a $10 item, because, you know, of the conundrum of doing 'ethnic food' and not being able to charge what we should charge for things, and being a counter service restaurant," says MacLarty. "But you would never know the amount of work that goes into this sandwich."
I am standing next to the chef in Bollywood Theater's commissary behind his Southeast location's kitchen, where he makes every single element that goes into the sandwich, and everything else on his small menu. He shows me the glossy, thick, jungle-green mint chutney; his burgundy-colored "sweet and hot" sauce that's like a spicy ketchup; the freshly pressed cubes of paneer; the cabbage slaw that had been salted the day before; the yellow strained yogurt speckled with spices that he uses as a marinade; and a raw disk of almost-whole wheat dough that will eventually become a handmade paratha. I have arrived too late to witness the "magical" act of 46 gallons of local curds separating from the whey for the paneer cheese that they make five days a week, but the pungent smell of whey is still strong in the high-ceilinged warehouse.
Behind us is a rack filled with jars of MacLarty's various spice blends; he has a different blend for almost every menu item. To date, he has a dozen of them. He swears that the lack of fresh spices in the States is the biggest issue when trying to recreate Indian food that tastes just as good as it does in India. "As spices age and get shipped around to warehouses in the US, some not only get stronger in certain ways but they just change in ways that take the identity out of them. A lot lose their flowery notes and become more acerbic and aggressive as time goes by."
The spices that he purchases are about twice as expensive, since he flies them out of a Chicago-based operation called The Reluctant Trading Experiment that does direct trading with spice growers. MacLarty claims that it is the only way to guarantee that the spices are consistently high-quality and, most importantly, not older than three months. He continues to talk about certain spices in the same tone that someone would talk about indie bands, "The latest turmeric that we got is unbelievable!"
Paneer, chicken, and beef are each marinated in his DIY yogurt marinade for at least 12 hours. It forms a light crust that caramelizes beautifully when seared on a flat-top grill. This becomes evident as MacLarty prepares a kati roll for me in the kitchen's busy line on a Saturday afternoon. The paratha is griddled with a few tablespoons of homemade ghee and slightly puffs up, not unlike a slightly greased-up flour tortilla. When the protein is adequately cooked and the paratha is crisped, it's time to plate it and roll it up like a slightly less bulgy Mission-style burrito.
"See that, everyone? Dad can still cook!" MacLarty jokes with the rest of his cooks working the line. He doesn't really work the line anymore since he deals with more of the operations side of running a restaurant, but you can tell he's made a few thousand of these, at least.
We make our way to one of the tables in the dining area and I sink my teeth into his workhorse of a sandwich. It is an impeccable reiteration of the classic with each creamy, crispy, tender, spicy, sweet, and sour element forming a heck of a magical bite—especially when washed down with a glass of Bollywood Theater's warm chai. I am tempted to eat both the chicken and paneer rolls that are about a foot long each and it is certainly the type of Indian food you wish you grew up on instead of stuffing yourself silly at your shitty neighborhood lunch buffet.
Naturally, the matter of being white and cooking Indian food comes up in the conversation, which is a subject that MacLarty is 100-percent comfortable talking about nowadays. "Well, because we're Westerners, we have to work in a really traditional box. I take a humble approach to every dish I make." He assures me that Portland's Indian community has fully embraced his food. Considering that the dining room was filled with Indian families at the time of my interview, I believe him.
"All of the articles used to point out that I was a white guy but now they generally don't. I'm not trying to make a political statement. It is just the food I very sincerely love, and the cuisine that I want to cook."
On average, he sells 60,000 of these delicious rolls a year. The price of the item has steadily risen by $4 since Bollywood Theater opened in 2012, and MacLarty says that people have generally stopped complaining about it being too expensive. It has been an organic process, too, since his Chez Panise-approach to sourcing high-quality everything isn't advertised anywhere on the menu or the restaurant. It also doesn't hurt that there is currently no other kati roll available in any other Indian restaurant in Portland.
"It is all about changing perception with the high quality of things and flavor. This is a hard way to go about it. Our labor cost runs over 40 percent, which is crazy for a counter service restaurant, but you can just feel we are doing the right things and people are willing to pay for it."