OVERTON, Neb. — There’s a burly, red-bearded man parked in one of the two-person booths at this central Nebraska hole in the wall.
He quietly orders a plate of chicken tikka korma, a Budweiser — and a pen, please, for the newspaper crossword puzzle folded on the petite table in front of him, its edge pressed against his plaid-covered barrel chest.
A few minutes later, his fork scrapes audibly across his plate.
“All finished?” Shelly Chaudhary asks.
“I love authentic Indian food,” he says. “So thank you.”
A few seconds later — and just 20 minutes or so after he first sat down — he pays Shelly’s husband, Harry, at the counter. Then he’s off, back to his semi parked in the lot at the Overton exit, headed back on to Interstate 80.
So goes every day at the Jay Bros., a stop along the road east of Lexington where there are no houses. There is no Subway or Starbucks, and hardly any people.
There are only the Chaudharys and their most unlikely version of the American dream: a central Nebraska Punjabi-style Indian restaurant, Taste of India, inside a truck stop.
It’s a combination that doesn’t seem like it should work but somehow does. That starts with their menu, a long list that includes dishes you might know and a handful you might not.
The most popular dish at Taste of India is probably butter chicken, a mildly spiced curry dish, Harry said. It’s a staple of their menu.
So are chicken tikka masala, goat and lamb curry and many vegetable dishes.
I was particularly excited to see a handful of dishes that I’ve never seen at an Indian restaurant in Nebraska before: aloo tikki, a sweet-spicy potato cake scented with fresh herbs, cheese and a hint of spice; and shahi paneer, huge pieces of Indian cheese nestled in a creamy, nutty sauce.
The house specialty is chole bhature: a bowl of chana masala — a saucy chickpea dish with big hunks of fresh-chopped ginger — served with fried bread called bhatoora for scooping. The dish is one of the most well known of Punjabi cuisine.
Harry and Shelly decided to serve Punjabi-style food because it’s served the same way worldwide, and is similar to the food in northern India, specifically Gujarat, where the couple met and got married.
They moved to California in 2007. Harry’s uncle bought a gas station in Paxton, Nebraska, and asked if he wanted to come and run it. So the Chaudharys came to Nebraska.
Harry did well at the gas station in Paxton, and soon he bought a hotel in Cozad and a dollar store in Kearney, both of which he’s since sold.
As he drove back and forth between his businesses, he would notice a busted-up truck stop at the Overton exit, one that had been closed and abandoned for years.
He had an idea. He tracked down the owner and made a deal.
In 2012, Harry bought himself a truck stop. He sighs.
“You want to see the pictures?” he asks.
He comes back, a thick, beat-up laptop in hand, and rolls a few videos: Broken glass. Water-damaged ceilings. Piles and piles of trash. Weeds 3 feet tall. A trashed kitchen and bathroom stalls. And even a handful of black cows roaming the open pasture that abuts the gas station.
It took Harry and his two sons four months just to clean up the convenience store side of the shop. He opened in December 2012 with just himself and one other employee who worked a few hours in the morning.
He sat in the shop alone most of the time, through the new year and into 2013. He added diesel pumps to try to attract truck drivers off the Interstate to his small mom-and-pop shop.
But he knew he needed another thing to draw those truckers in: food. Hamburgers and french fries, he thought. That’s the ticket.
“I tried it for three months,” he said. “It didn’t work.”
But Harry is a stubborn man. He placed an ad in a newspaper in California: cook wanted. And not just any cook. A cook to help him open a new Punjabi-style Indian restaurant inside a truck stop in the middle of nowhere.
You will not be surprised to learn that a lot of people doubted Harry’s new plan.
“There is no community around here, not even a small one,” he said. “Overton is 4 miles from here. Lexington is 11. Elm Creek is 9 or 10. Kearney is 25. Many local people thought it couldn’t work.”
Harry decided he didn’t care. He and Shelly, both vegetarians, started the menu without meat. Once chef Suren arrived from California, he encouraged them to add meat to the menu.
“Everyone likes beef,” Harry says.
Now Taste of India also serves chicken, fish, goat and lamb (still no beef, though). Most ingredients come from markets in Lexington, and some come from Omaha and Lincoln. Harry orders spices in bulk from Chicago, and all the naan is baked in-house.
The kitchen keeps the meat separate from the vegetarian dishes, and Harry is staunchly anti-buffet. “Who wants to eat food that sits all day?” he asks.
Harry made all those changes, and a funny thing happened: Truckers stopped to eat. They told other truckers about it, and they stopped, too. Harry hired a second chef, this one from Chicago. On weekend nights he would peek out of the kitchen and see his impossible dream of a restaurant nearly full.
“I saw lots of people from Kearney start coming in on Friday and Saturday nights,” Harry said. “And then from Holdrege. From Lexington and Cozad and McCook. From Ogallala. From North Platte!”
He shakes his head.
“First I was thinking, ‘You are coming from North Platte? That is too far for food.’ But they literally just came here for food. Now, lots of people know.”
After Suren left, Harry hired another chef, also from California, who will arrive this April. And his nephew, Roy, works many hours in the restaurant, as well as the rest of the business, now that things are so much busier.
Travelers from Omaha and Lincoln, Iowa and Minnesota, headed to Denver or other places make the pilgrimage to Taste of India.
Many of those people — and truckers, too — call ahead for their orders, so food will be ready when they arrive. Some eat there, some take it home. And for some diners, it’s their first taste of India.
As it was for a couple dining the same evening I did, who didn’t realize what they were in for.
“Do you like Indian food?” Shelly asked them.
“I’ve never had it,” the woman said, then almost immediately asked, “Is it real spicy?”
Shelly said it can be made medium or mild, and the woman ordered a chicken dish.
After Shelly walked away, the woman looked at her husband.
“You sure as heck didn’t say Indian food!”
Newbies aside, the restaurant has attracted lots and lots of regulars.
Some are professors at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where the couple’s sons — ages 21 and 26 — both study, the younger as a computer science student and the older as part of a master’s program. They lined their father up to cater events for international students, and many of those families are now regulars as well.
Harry and Shelly said they’ve found a few fellow Indians in Cozad, where they live, but not many. A few others, from southern India, live in Kearney.
“But I have good Indian customers driving trucks from California, New York and Chicago,” Harry says, smiling. “Some of the customers, even though they are from New York, they like this more than the New York restaurants.”
As far as Harry and Shelly know, they might be running the only roadside Indian joint in the Midwest. Certainly they are the only one in Nebraska.
“We have tried hard,” Harry said, sitting in the dining room of his restaurant. And now, four years after he bought this place, it’s working.
“Restaurants are a hard business, and to me, if you don’t have the proper guidance then you should do something else other than food,” he says. “But this is one good adventure I have done in my life. I see that and I become proud of myself. I have done something good.”