This summer, my favourite restaurant shut its doors for the last time. “Permanently closed” is the term Google Maps now displays in red text next to the restaurant’s name.
But the digital writing was on the wall. Several days before checking in with Google, I noticed that A Taste of India wasn’t appearing on DoorDash, and my phone calls went unanswered.
“Calm down,” my long-suffering wife, who, in marrying me also married my love of this restaurant, said, “They’re probably just on vacation.”
But I knew better.
When Google confirmed my fears, I had to face the truth: A Taste of India, not just my favourite Indian restaurant specifically, but the place that I thought served the best food on Earth – was gone forever.
Confronting this led to further, somewhat ridiculous existential questions, no doubt asked by many people who lost beloved establishments during the pandemic. As a loyal customer, how do you mourn a lost establishment? Who do you contact to offer condolences? How devastated are you allowed to be before it gets weird? And what, exactly, have you lost?
I first visited A Taste of India in 2004, on the first day of my first visit to Vancouver. I was staying at the UBC campus residence a few months before starting my MA. My future supervisor drove me downtown and unceremoniously dropped me off at the busy intersection of Robson and Granville streets. I aimlessly wandered up Robson with no sense of where I was going. Eventually, I got hungry and, having recently tried Indian food for the first time, ducked into the first Indian restaurant I saw and ordered the only two dishes I knew: butter chicken and saag paneer. When I got back to my little dorm room, I realized that I’d neglected to ask for cutlery and had no idea where to get any on the deserted, pitch-black campus. I stuck my finger into each dish just to taste them and was dumbstruck. The food was so delicious that I couldn’t wait to procure cutlery. Instead, I took the battery cover off a remote control, washed it (dignity, always dignity), and proceeded to use it to shovel rice and curry into my mouth.
Thus began my 20-year love affair with A Taste of India. I only ever ordered those two same dishes, and always in the same quantity and combination: one butter chicken medium, one butter chicken hot, one saag paneer medium, one saag paneer hot, two extra orders of rice.
I would call A Taste of India whenever I was hungover, sad (usually both), or when I needed a creature comfort: something reassuring, something that made me feel cozy and situated, something that I knew could guarantee uncomplicated enjoyment.
Over time, instead of saying “Hello” when I called, the woman who answered the restaurant’s phone would simply say, “It’ll be ready for pickup in 20 minutes, Christine.” When I got the food home I’d neatly spoon half of each curry onto a pile of rice, and then bake it in the oven (400F for 20 minutes) to get it a bit crispy on top. Why I felt the need to do this is unknown, but it was a non-negotiable prerequisite to eating.
Whether things in my life were going poorly or brilliantly, those two dishes and the persnickety little ceremony that surrounded them came to signify all the things that our favourite dishes do, and they became a sensory ritual with no equal for me.
But more important than the ritual was the taste. When I moved away from Vancouver to do my Ph.D. in England, I searched everywhere for an Indian restaurant that came close to A Taste of India’s flavours but I never found it. The more I searched, the more frustrated I became. How were all these other restaurants getting it so wrong? I have never tasted any iteration of butter chicken or saag paneer that came within miles of A Taste of India’s offerings. I don’t know enough about Indian food to say why, but both dishes tasted richer, more complex, and more savoury when cooked by A Taste of India.
The butter chicken had a cashew flavour with a mildly acidic finish, and the saag paneer was dense, cumin-y and extra creamy, as if the spinach had been bulked out with chickpeas. When I eventually moved back to Vancouver, I drunk-dialled the restaurant within a few hours of unpacking my suitcase, yelling down the phone like a demented ex-girlfriend that I’d missed them so much, I’d looked everywhere for someone like them but there was nobody like them, they were the best I’d ever had.
I don’t know why A Taste of India closed. It had been operating in the same location for decades, so I hope that its closure was for a happy reason such as the owner’s retirement. I wish all its employees all the best and want to thank them for the (probably) thousands of dishes they’ve prepared for me over the last 20 years. I want them to know that their absence will be felt by the people who loved their food, but unquestionably most of all by me.
Goodbye, A Taste of India. I will miss you more than I can comfortably and sanely admit.
Christine Evans lives in Vancouver.