A "Mystikkal" Man and His Food Cart Bring Authentic South Asian Cooking to the Streets of NYC

By Wendy Wong

Onex

(Photographs by Lily Chin and Wendy Wong)

When Mysttik Masaala opened this March in Astoria, Queens, the food cart—which serves a mix of Indian home cooking and Mumbai-style chaat—was struggling to break even. But within six months Yuvaraaj Thakkar, the cart’s founder and co-owner, found his footing. Since changing locations to Midtown’s buzzing street food scene, he’s found greater success, earning a nomination in the Rookie Category at this Saturday’s Vendy Awards along the way.

Mysttik Masaala can still be found on occasional weekends at its original spot at the corner of Steinway and Broadway in Astoria, but on most weekdays the cart is parked near the United Nations Headquarters (around 44th St. and Second Ave., between 11:00 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.).

“Being a block away from the U.N., the whole world comes here to eat,” Thakkar says.

Thakkar’s son Rishi is the inspiration behind Mysttik Masaala. Father and son had planned to open a food cart incorporating Nepali-Tibetan cuisine because Rishi loved momos (Himalayan steamed dumplings) and wanted to serve them as a street food.

When Rishi passed away last year at age of 20, Thakkar was determined to make his son’s dream a reality. He approached Tashi Sherpa, a Tibetan raised by a Nepali family, and the two built the business together.

Thakkar and his cooking team start most days at 5:00 a.m. in their Queens commercial kitchen, where they prep, cook and pack that day’s food for the cart. Mysttik Masaala’s menu, which changes every day, offers a mix of dishes and snacks from Mumbai and the North Indian state of Punjab, Tibetan-Nepali momos topped with garlic and hot sauces and occasionally dishes from other regions of India (such as the state of Gujarat, located near Mumbai).

Being in the food business was nothing new for Thakkar, who grew up in Mumbai, where his grandparents used to own a restaurant.

“Everybody was a good cook in the family ever since,” Thakkar says. “We all loved and had the passion to cook. So [running a food cart] just came naturally.”

On a recent rainy day, the bad weather didn’t stop people from lining up at the cart. While his customers waited for their food, Thakkar chatted with them, trading stories with one Indian customer about growing up in Mumbai, joking with regulars, offering ordering suggestions to others and wishing everyone a “magical meal.”

“You make friends with customers,” Thakkar says. “That keeps people coming back.”

Of course, the food also wins him many return patrons. Mystikk Masala’s dishes, a combination of home-style cooking and authentic street fare, are made with recipes that come from Thakkar’s own family, Sherpa and one of their fellow cooks.

Mysttik Masaala offers several meat and vegetarian platters each day, which feature dishes like chicken vindaloo (chicken in a Portuguese-influenced tangy and spicy gravy), lamb kofta (lamb meatballs with gravy), kadi pakora (vegetable fritters in a chickpea flour and yogurt gravy) and aloo gobi (spiced potatoes and cauliflower).

The platters come with daal (lentil stew), basmati rice, salad and raita (yogurt blended with spices). Sometimes other bean dishes—like rajma (North Indian kidney bean stew), chole (chickpeas cooked in Punjabi spices), kala chana (black chickpeas) and rongi (black-eyed peas)—are also offered on the side. (For great photos of some of these dishes, check out Serious Eats’ slideshow.)

One of Mysttik Masaala’s most popular options is samosa chaat. This hearty snack is made by mashing up potato samosas and topping them with spicy chole (chickpeas), onions, cilantro, several tangy, spicy and sweet chutneys, red chili powder and chaat masala (a blend of salty and savory spices).

“[In India] they sell it in restaurants, but the best chaat is found on the streets,” Thakkar says. “So I wanted to bring the street chaat to New York’s streets.”

Thakkar still travels to Mumbai every few months to visit family and bring back freshly ground spices—like red chili, cumin, coriander and garam masala—to use in the cart’s food. It’s far more costly than buying spices here in New York, but Thakkar believes the expense is well worth it.

“The flavor of my food here on my cart tells you all,” he says.

Mysttik Masaala
304 East 44th St. (map)
New York, NY 10017

Schedule available on Mysttik Masaala’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Tickets for the 2013 NYC Vendy Awards are still available here.


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