Consider Ranjit and Pardeep Khehra: Two people who’ve opened two restaurants in hopes of making two dreams come true — one big and one small — while serving two kinds of people, those who’ve visited a street fair in the Indian state of Punjab, and those who’ll be sorry they haven’t after eating at Desi Bites Cafe, the couple’s Hicksville location that opened in December. Their delectable vegetarian menu focuses almost entirely on northern India’s street foods and snacks — gol gappa, falooda rabri, potato patty burgers dressed with noodles, grilled sandwiches of potato and green pepper and more — just like the first Desi Bites, which opened in the Queens neighborhood of Richmond Hill in 2020.
“There are a lot of migrant immigrants there,” said Ranjit Khehra, who was a migrant himself when he arrived in the U.S. in 2013, and knows what it’s like to be both homesick for Indian fare and lost in the kitchen. “Some of us were used to having servants do that and some of us were just men. Husbands don’t cook in our culture.” Khehra’s first dream was to serve people like himself, quickly discovering that like all dreams, it came with obstacles.
“It’s very hard to please Indian people. If non-Indian people don’t like something, they just won’t come back, but if Indian people don’t like something, they will throw food at you,” he said with a laugh. In an effort to avoid that fate, Khehra hired not professional chefs for Desi Bites but “Punjabi ladies who make that food all the time.”
Diners have been throwing Desi Bites into their mouths and nowhere else at the Khehras’ eatery, which sometimes feels like a glorious food tour of the alleyways of Amritsar. The gol gappa — hollow fried puff balls filled with chickpeas and potato, and served with the requisite minty water for dipping — is a one-bite crunchy delight ($7.99 for eight pieces), as is the samosa chaat, its pastries arriving submerged in a tangy, spicy swirl of chickpeas, yogurt and chutney ($7.99). The aforementioned noodle-dressed burger (the DBC Maharaja, $7.99), a hearty sandwich composed of a well-seasoned potato patty, tomatoes, onion, cucumber and a scoop of spaghetti on a bun, works far better than it sounds, while the falooda rabri, a concoction of partially melted ice cream concoction, rose syrup, sweet basil seeds and strands of glassy vermicelli, makes for a tongue-tingling dessert ($6.99).
Despite debuting during the pandemic, the first Desi Bites was a hit, serving hundreds of meals a day not just to street food lovers in Queens but Long Islanders who trekked west. Hence came Desi Bites II in Hicksville, but also the birth of a second, bigger dream. “It started with a question asked to me by an Indian guy,” Ranjit Khehra recalled. “He said, ‘We’ve been here more than 70 years. Why is there no Indian fast-food chain in the U. S.?’ ”
The fare itself is part of the problem, Khehra explained. “Indian food is cursed. You cannot make it fast.” Desi Bites aspires to complete orders in five minutes or less, something he acknowledges has been a challenge. But Khehra is used to facing dream-killing obstacles, and if he overcomes them this time, hopes to expand his operations and make Desi Bites a destination for Indian street food lovers far and wide.
Then again, “India is number one in population,” he said. “Even if we capture only 0.001% of them, that’s all we need.”
Desi Bites Cafe is at 358 W. Old Country Rd. in Hicksville, 516-490-6500. Opening hours are daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.