In 1999, Buena Park residents loudly protested when a group of Hindus proposed to build a massive temple in the city that Knott built. "I don't want them because they are closed off from our culture," one told The Orange County Register at the time. "Why can't they assimilate into the rest of America?"
Though the temple was never built, the Know Nothings lost—big time. Today, in addition to being one of the focal points of Korean life in Southern California, Buena Park is in the midst of a subcontinental renaissance. Indian and Pakistani restaurants and markets are springing up in increasing numbers, and both Jains and Sikhs have erected gorgeous temples in the past decade, drawing the faithful from across the Southland. Down the street from the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple stands a shrine of its own: Namastey India. We named it the best Indian restaurant last year, and we just might do it again, as this grocery store-cum-buffet stuns with every heaping Styrofoam plate, every steaming to-go container filled to the brim with veggies, meats and glory.
It's a deceptive place—your classic ethnic store of streaked floors, plastic tables, calling cards and high-definition television tuned to native entertainment (sumptuous Bollywood movies in this case, of course). The buffet has labels, although your Orange County life should've already taught you how to distinguish your paneer (cheese) from your palak (spinach) and tikka masalas. Poster boards on the wall feature hand-scribbled specials—order from here or from the buffet, but order quickly because the people behind you are fidgeting. Namastey's emphasis is on Punjabi-style food, which means the meats and breads come from the tandoor and the spice level is cosmic. The chaat is fabulous; Indian-style snacks are prepared in-house and range from fried lentils to puffy, fried balls filled with potato, as ethereal as a soap bubble. Lassis come salty or sweet—the rosewater flavor is like sherbert gone liquid. Even something as simple as a chutney has the nuance of a thousand vedas—wait, vedas are for Hindus, not Sikhs. . . . You get my point!
Hell, even old-line Buena Park eats at Namastey. The other day, a white guy as wide as he was tall and sporting an overstretched Harley-Davidson T-shirt came in. He graciously let others cut in front of him, saying his order was big. And it was: five platters mixing and matching meats and veggies, drenched in raita and rice; four orders of garlic naan, pungent and dripping butter; and a side of gulab jamun, the fried balls soaked in rosewater. "Hey, man!" yelled the Sikh owner, splendid in his turban and full beard. "Long time, no see!" The man returned the warm greeting. Buena Park might've rejected the Hindus in 1999, but good taste shut up the Know Nothings forever.
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This column appeared in print as "Chaat Up."