SARTAJ INDIAN CAFE: Burrowed in the streets of Sausalito’s quaint downtown, Sartaj Indian Cafe is truly a hidden gem. Run by a cheerful Punjabi couple, Balbir and Basi, this tiny, bustling cafe is essentially a mom-and-pop shop, giving the restaurant a personal, homey feel that is missing at bigger, more upscale establishments.
Upon walking into the little space, I saw walls and windows painted in bright green and red, adorned with adorable little pictures and posters. My favorite one was a painted sign sternly admonishing customers against putting their feet up on the couches—it reminded me of the rules my grandmother had for us kids whenever we would eat at her house back in India. Above their kitchen, there were blackboards with daily specials written on them in colorful chalk. I was amused to see that all of their menu items were named after loyal customers, from the “Jeff and Julia Special Saag Paneer,” to “Barbara and Peter Special Dhal.” Just from these minute details, it was clear to me how much Sartaj cares about its customers and works to build lasting, personal relationships with members of the community.
If the wonderfully comfortable ambiance doesn’t make you feel at home right away, it’s the food that will win your heart. Being a potato lover, I ordered the world-famous Punjabi classic dish, aloo paratha. Aloo paratha is a buttery, flaky whole wheat bread pancake, stuffed to maximum capacity with deliciously seasoned potatoes, coriander and Indian spices, served with a side of Indian pickles. Sartaj’s aloo paratha transported me straight to Punjab with its authentic preparation and irresistible flavor. Served steaming hot, fresh off the tava, each bite of the paratha was so buttery that it melted straight onto my tongue, the different spices and seasoning washing over my palate.
Though the parathas can certainly be eaten on their own, I also ordered saag paneer, a spinach and Indian cottage cheese curry, for accompaniment. The curry had a milder, creamier taste, a perfect complement to the spicy paratha. The flavors from the two dishes balanced each other out so perfectly that I reached food nirvana. For dessert, I ordered another classic Punjabi item, mango lassi, which served as the finishing touch on an immensely satisfying meal.