CART BLANCH: Avtar Kaur and her son Amrit Singh (top left) are pitted against Mike Cheema's Original India Chaat House (top right) in a suddenly crowded Southwest Yamhill Street parking lot (above). IMAGE: Kat Miller
Avtar Kaur could have opened her business anywhere in the city. There are, after all, only four other Indian food carts in town. But she picked the corner of Southwest 12th Avenue and Yamhill Street—right next to the familiar saffron-colored India Chaat House. Odd, sure, but here's what's really weird—she ran the Chaat House for nine years with her ex-husband, Daljit Singh, until he was awarded it in a divorce settlement and sold it.
Her decision to move in next door launched a dramatic Yamhill curry war worthy of a Bollywood masala movie.
Kaur's new kitchen, the Bombay Chaat House, is a former pizza stand. The 45-year-old woman looks a bit incongruous at the Italian red-white-and-green service window in her traditional Indian saalwaar kameez (the ubiquitous trousers and tunic that originated in Punjab) and turquoise headscarf. And behind her, in the cramped kitchen-on-wheels, her son Amrit Singh, 21, bearded and turbaned, helps cook up the same menu of Punjabi specialties as the Indian Chaat House next door.
Customers at both carts often ask why there are two Indian carts next to each other. "I'm speechless," says Mike Cheema, the new, Pakistani proprietor of the India Chaat House. "It's the strangest thing in Portland."
Kaur doesn't think it's so odd. She developed the India Chaat House menu with Singh in 2000, and only quit when the couple separated last summer. He was awarded the cart in divorce proceedings. (She got their Aloha house and a Beaverton restaurant, Chaat 4-U.)
"This corner, the people, the place, the directions to here, I've known for nine years," Kaur says. So when Singh shuttered the enterprise in December and went on a trip to India, she set up shop. "People emailed me," Kaur explains. "They said, 'You come back behind him. We support you.'" So, in January, Kaur set up an old pizza wagon on the same corner. She rechristened it with a name nearly identical to their original venture—the Bombay Chaat House.
"We thought we would surprise him," says Amrit.
Daljit Singh was surprised. Shortly after his return in February, he and Avtar filed restraining orders against each other. "I decided that I would just sell my business and move away," Singh said in court filings. He sold the India Chaat House for $40,000 to Mike Cheema, a 58-year-old entrepreneur from the Pakistani side of the divided province of Punjab.
Cheema says he had no clue he was stepping into a family feud. "He sold me on a false pretense," he says. "If I knew about the cart next door, I wouldn't have bought it. Two Indian carts next to each other, that's asking for trouble."
Trouble happened. Since February, the police have been called to the corner at least three times. On separate occassions, Cheema has told cops Amrit or his brother, Harjinder, 23, "used a BB gun to shoot out [his] cart's back fog light," stole laminated lunch-special menus and tried "to vandalize the [framed] menu with his dad's picture on it." He also says someone swiped the American flag flying in front of his cart.
Portland police confirm that Mike Cheema filed a report that his menu sign was stolen overnight on March 29. However, no one was listed as a possible suspect, and there was no mention of defiling. Amrit denies both allegations, adding, "Why would we steal their menu? We made up the menus; we still have them stored on our computer."
Tensions mounted so much that Cheema rearranged his dining area to block the view between the two carts. "I moved the wall over there," says Cheema, "so I wouldn't have to see her face."
Kaur is determined to stay. The immigrant whose first name, Avtar, is Sanskrit for "incarnation" or "rebirth," is now negotiating the Sikh stigma against divorce. She's found allies in the anti-fur protestors who stand across Yamhill Street in front of Nicholas Ungar Furs. "She showed that her husband doesn't have rule over her life," says one protester, who calls himself Radish. Kaur, who is strictly vegetarian, supplies protesters with free meals and chai. "The vegans are here for the animals," says Kaur, "so we are here for the vegans."
Hungry Portlanders don't have to take sides. Both serve cheap yet excellent downtown lunch options. The standard order is a mango lassi ($2.50 India Chaat House, $2.30 Bombay Chaat House) or hot chai and the lunch special, which includes three types of curry, naan and basmati rice—a hearty lunch for under $10. All entrees at either stall come with basmati rice (all under $6 at the Bombay Chaat House, $6 at the India Chaat House) and can be made vegan on demand.
Aside from the entrees, the carts serve their namesake—Chaat, the street food of India—including pani puri (small fried breads stuffed with a medley of potatoes, cilantro, onions and tomatoes dipped in mint and tamarind sauce, $4), bhel puri (the puffed rice version, $3.75), dahi vada (fried lentil patties soaked in spices and yogurt, $3) and the famous samosa (deep-fried, spicy potato-stuffed breads $3.50).
As the curry wars play out, lucky Portlanders get a chance to explore new cuisines at an affordable price—a pretty good form of collateral damage.