New Haven has been home to Prasad Chirnomula’s two stand-out Indian restaurants, the elegant Thali and the more casual, as well as vegetarian, Thali Too. When Chirnomula was encouraged to open yet another eatery, he surprised everyone by switching continents and culinary interests. He and co-owner Tom Brandt went Mexican and called it Oaxaca Kitchen.
Chirnomula was born into a family of physicians in Hyderabad, India. “While my parents were looking for a medical school [for me], I was looking for a cooking school.” He graduated from Maharashtra State Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology in 1985, and was hired immediately by the Ritz hotel in India. As the food and beverage manager, he supervised about 200 workers. A year later he had the chance to come to the U.S. Staying with doctor cousins in Wilton, he quickly found work at an Indian restaurant on Long Island. Starting as a busboy, he immediately started to work his way up, assisting the owners in opening a new restaurant in New York City. The next year he returned to Connecticut, working as a consultant to several restaurants in Fairfield County. In 1993, with the help of a partnership of over a dozen people, he opened his first restaurant in Westport, called Bombay Bar & Grill.
“My mission and vision at that time was to change what people think about Indian restaurants,” Chirnomula says, “from decor, services, quality, getting more regional food of India, getting more food that they weren’t exposed to. I got a lot more interesting food on the plate and got glorious [media] reviews. I put Indian food on the map.”He opened seven restaurants in three years, from Westchester to Massachusetts. Then in 2000 he opened the first of his elegant Thali restaurants, this one in New Canaan. The second Thali opened in Ridgefield in 2004, and in 2006 came New Haven’s Thali. Thali Too opened two years later.
When a third New Haven location was beckoning, Chirnomula decided to break out of the Indian mould. “The technique of cooking Mexican food is very close to Indian. The ingredients are pretty similar, it’s very tribal, it’s not too mechanical, it’s not too ‘bottles and cans,’ the techniques are very primitive. Similar ingredients: India is known for its rice and lentils, Mexico is known for rice and beans. India is known for its breads, Mexico is known for its tortillas. India is known for its sauces, which they call curries. Mexico is known for their sauces, mostly called molés. And the common ingredients are onions, garlic, tomato, cloves, cinnamon, cumin and lots of types of chiles.”
Chirnomula traveled to Oaxaca to learn the basics of homestyle Mexican cooking, spending his days with both professional chefs and what he calls “lady chefs,” the local women who really know how to cook. Working with them gave him the confidence to launch such a new enterprise, and Oaxaca Kitchen opened in 2011.
The restaurant is designed to have two dining room designs. “When you look from outside [at the front room], it should look like you are on the streets of Mexico,” with worn floors and walls, old bottles left on the bar, old things were recycled as a must. The back dining room has a feeling of elegance, like a living or dining room.
Oaxaca Kitchen started with food that was based purely in Mexico. But there was a strong demand for Tex-Mex and now it’s a more mixed menu. “Fresh food, simple food, made food.” Chirnomula says. “People think in Mexican food there is only one molé: the chocolate molé. Not so. Molé can be with pistachios, with yellow peppers, pumpkin seed. A lot of molés.”
Yes, it’s a Mexican restaurant with an Indian chef at the head, but that chef is Prasad Chirnomula, and a delicious, authentically-flavored and beautiful-to-look-at meal awaits you.
Restaurant Website: http://oaxacakitchen.com/
• The Detes: 228 College St., New Haven. 203-859-5774. Open seven days: Monday – Thursday 11:30 a.m. – 10:00 p.m., Friday & Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 11:00 p.m., Sunday noon – 10:00 p.m. The bar: 11:30 a.m. to close.
• Price Range: Lunch special platters $9.75 noon-3 p.m., appetizers $4-12, soups and salads $4-7, tacos $4, fajitas $16-18, burritos, enchiladas, tortas, chimichangas 9-15, entrees $16-23.
• Style of Food: Homestyle Mexican
• Favorite dishes: Tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, steak and of course, the moles.
• Drinks: full bar
• Vegetarian/gluten free: yes
• Events and catering: yes
• Outdoor dining: yes