Taco Mahal Makes a Compelling Case for Fusion Cuisine
A pioneering NYC restaurant embraces the future of food
Danikkah Josan remembers cooking with her grandmother in the Bronx, whose kitchen was stocked with Puerto Rican food and spices; cilantro, parsley, and adobo filled the room.
“She got me into making things like pollo guisado, which is a chicken stew — that was one of the first things I learned to cook besides boiling rice,” said Josan. “She just taught me the basic fundamentals of cooking at a very early age.”
Those fundamentals would play a bigger role in Josan’s life than her grandmother likely realized. The young business owner runs Taco Mahal, a Manhattan-based fusion restaurant that combines Indian food and taco-style servings.
The original West Village location of Taco Mahal is almost a sensory overload. Orange signage welcomes guests. Indian art blankets the walls while international music plays in the background. Like many New York eateries, the space is a bit small, but indoor and outdoor seating offer ample space for hungry New Yorkers and tourists to indulge in basmati bowls, samosas, and, of course, Indian tacos.
Josan, like many restaurant owners, is figuring out how to navigate the day-to-day of running a restaurant while working through an ongoing pandemic. Her second location in Hell’s Kitchen opened in 2020. She spent two years planning the opening, assuming it was a great location to connect with Broadway visitors.
For Josan, who descends from a Puerto Rican mother and Indian father, a multiracial identity has shaped her cooking experience and love of global flavors. Josan grew up eating a lot of Puerto Rican and Indian food, like butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, and mofongo. Her parents would cook regularly, and her dad would add Puerto Rican flavors and spices to his Indian food, like lamb, while her mom would add Indian spices to her Puerto Rican meals. This fusing of flavors influenced Josan early on, even when she moved to Dallas for a Business Administration degree, and tried her first Texas taco.
“I used to tell my family that I’ve never tasted a taco like this anywhere,” Josan told me at her second location in Hell’s Kitchen. “They were just so great.”
Josan’s introduction to Texas tacos and her commitment to her multiracial culinary upbringing helped to shape a new idea: What if she combined tacos with Indian cuisine, crafting a “Latinidad” cuisine?
When Josan returned to New York in 2014, she spoke to her father, who, among other ventures like owning restaurants and small businesses in the city, owned a newsstand in the West Village. As the internet has eclipsed the world of newspapers and print magazines, her father was getting ready to close his shop. But Josan thought the space deserved another use.
“I thought that it was a really great opportunity,” to take it over, Josan said. “I thought if only we could make tacos as I had them in Texas, but make them in New York and make them our own.”
During 2014 and 2015, Josan developed the idea for an Indian taco restaurant, one that would pay homage to her multicultural upbringing and desire to combine some of her favorite foods: In October 2016, Josan opened Taco Mahal, a choice she said was “the best decision” of her life. Shortly after opening, a viral video posted by an unassuming patron who actually worked for Facebook sent the restaurant into must-go status for New Yorkers and tourists alike.
Taco Mahal isn’t a gimmicky, tourists-only restaurant, though: The Indian flavors are bright and fresh, and Josan’s vision has transformed the former newsstand into a center of inventiveness. Taco Mahal, with locations in the West Village and Hell’s Kitchen, gives visitors the option of a roti taco, naan taco, or basmati bowl. Various Indian proteins fill these warm taco breads like chicken tikka masalas, chicken breast marinated in yogurt and herbs, bathed in creamy tomato sauce with fenugreek leaves. There’s lamb curry, a lamb dish of marinated lamb leg slow-cooked in curry sauce. There are biryani bowls and tandoori wings as well as saag paneer.
Taco Mahal is part of a wave of fusion food that’s dominated the food truck and restaurant industry. Houston’s Oh My Gogi has found unparalleled success serving up Mexican-Korean dishes, like bulgogi beef fries; Terry and Yaki has won over New Yorkers with their spin on halal and Asian flavors; Viet-Cajun cuisine in Houston has brilliantly combined two cuisines that have helped shape one of the nation’s most diverse cities.
Not everyone is sold on the idea of fusion cooking: Josan had a few patrons who were less-than-thrilled, claiming that the food wasn’t “real Indian food.” Those perspectives are few and far between, she said — and simply aren’t aligned with the changing nature of food alongside an increasingly diverse United States.
For Josan, running a successful fusion restaurant and expanding options for global cuisine in Manhattan is bigger than her own goals. Patrons, particularly those of multiracial backgrounds, have thanked her for representing multicultural cuisine.
“[So] many people came up to me saying things like, ‘Oh, my mother is from Mexico and my father's from India.’ Or, ‘My mother's from Afghanistan and my father’s from Colombia.’ There were so many children and kids that were so happy that someone actually spoke up about these things, even if it doesn't make sense to other people. It makes sense to the person that grew up that way,” said Josan.
“I think I have a responsibility to bring that to the forefront,” she said. “There are a lot of people in this world that are mixed, and it's great to show that representation….[It’s] the world we're living in.”
Josan isn’t stopping at Indian tacos: This fall, she’s expanding her culinary ambitions by bringing a Kulfi shop to Manhattan, where she’ll sell the beloved no-churn ice cream, bringing further attention to Indian cuisine and sweets.