From top left: Roni Mazumdar, Eric Valdez, Tsepak Dolker, Chintan Pandya, Saul Anastacio, Rafael Zaragoza, Shawon Deb, Cristian Gonzalez, Lila Weitzner, Juan Gonzalez, Abel Aviles and Bubacarr Kabba.
Photo: Evan Angelastro
The kitchen of Dhamaka – the Indian facility in Essex Crossing with a months-long waiting list – is about the size of a large storage container. At tightly packed stations, chefs work, if not back-to-back, then close enough to make ingredients without a step. For pulao, a rice dish, chef Eric Valdez uses a portable butane gas burner that takes up less space than a stove. “I’ve camped before and cooked with it,” says Valdez. “But in a professional kitchen? That is my first time.”
Dhamaka, which opened in February 2021, is known for its authentic rendition of regional Indian dishes that are less familiar to guests abroad: Gujarati-stuffed peppers with peanuts and chickpea flour masala; a pork lettuce from the northeast of the country. It has become a destination for members of the South Asian diaspora seeking the paneer of the house, food geeks keen to complain that New York’s Indian offerings don’t compare to London’s, and financial bureaus eager to bragging about getting one of the most coveted reservations in town. Even at the height of Omicron, Dhamaka was booked out for weeks. “We don’t really get any cancellations,” says chef Chintan Pandya.
Pulao is one of the most popular menu items, and initially the restaurant tried to limit orders: “Any time we were busy, there was chaos,” says Valdez. Each pulao takes about eight minutes to cook, and only two can be prepared at a time. But he got used to it: “It’s all about timing. You have to smell the steam coming out – then you know it’s cooked enough.” Valdez processes the passport and the Pulao station at the same time; there is no room for anyone else.
In such a cramped environment, it helps that some of the staff, including Valdez and line chef Abubacarr Gikineh, have worked together before (Valdez and Gikineh have stints at Junun and then Rahi, Pandya’s first restaurant with his business partner Roni Mazumdar). A year later, everyone in the kitchen still seems a little surprised by the fanfare. “People ask, ‘Why are you always busy?’ I say, ‘I’m just cooking the food, bro. I don’t know why they like it,’” says Gikineh. “Everything I do, I learn from Chintan and Eric. I do it the way they taught me and if we can do better, that’s good.”