Vinod Venkataraman has lived a lot of lives. In his native India, he was a classically trained jazz drummer. Then, he studied math, went to medical school and moved to the U.S. to open a practice. Along the way, he dabbled in art, raised a family (his wife is also a doctor), performed at colleges across the country and spoke at universities (like Berklee College of Music) about the intersectional possibilities of his disparate interests.
Almost four years ago, Venkataraman retired by opening a cafe in a ground-floor storage room at Woodruff Medical Center, where his wife still has a practice. The unassuming Appu’s Cafe makes Yelp’s 100 Best Restaurants in America list every year.
“This is part of my bucket list,” the energetic Venkataraman, who now goes by “V.R.,” told me once from behind the counter. “Next, I want to write a cookbook, and at 70, I want to bungee jump from a plane.”
Until the bungee jump, he can be found at Appu’s, serving a menu of his own invention that mixes flavors from his vegan Indian upbringing with meat-free options from other cuisines — all while maintaining the crucial role as the only coffee shop in the office building.
The goal, he says, was to provide food and drinks for the kinds of healthy lifestyles he encouraged his patients to undertake when he was a doctor. For breakfast, he has fresh-fruit waffles and spiced egg sandwiches and oatmeals served with raisins, dates and walnuts (yes, yes there’s coffee too). His breakfast tacos are Texas-meets-Mumbai, with grilled turmeric vegetables, eggs and pico de gallo on two soft corn tortillas.
Later in the day, he serves his own takes on sandwiches (eggplant paninis, veggie burgers), salads (mung beans and carrots, black bean and avocado) and Mexican mains (spinach enchiladas, the must-try Maharaja burrito). A steam tray area to the left of the register is often filled with various pre-made rices but can always be found stocked with Venkataraman’s homemade soups, which tend to be more liquid examples of hearty
Indian dishes and taste even better poured over some of the rice. The spinach soup is a peppery saag aloo, the mushroom soup a creamy veggie korma and the lentil soups (there’s two), like your favorite simmered daal. A soup with black eyed peas and bamboo is only available when his gourmet-herb connection in L.A. calls and Venkataraman drives up to the produce district before sunrise to pick up a pricey bundle.
Many of the dishes at Appu’s Cafe are seasonal, which for a former doctor means cooking for whichever illnesses — not vegetables — are in season. Physicians in the building (aka his wife) tell Venkataraman when they’re starting to see flu patients and Appu’s daily-made cardamom or lemongrass chai becomes a potent ginger version with enough bite to clear the most stuffed-up sinuses.
Despite all the interesting food coming out of a cafe with no visible street signage (drive around the back and follow the sandwich board), the real reason for its success is Venkataraman, who while rolling up your veggie-stuffed Healthy Mex Burrito will entertain you with inspiring stories and good conversation. On one visit you might meet his only other employee, Nelly, who Venkataraman will tell you helped raise his kids and has become like family. On another trip, you’ll leave with a copy of of his daughter’s latest album, which shows off the skills of the child prodigy violinist who earned a jazz performance degree while still a teenager.
These days, the owner/chef/doctor/musician/mathematician/vegetarian advocate/health guru might try to sell you a ticket to “Wind Whisperers From India,” his upcoming performance at Ford Theater, where he will play an event that features top musicians from both northern and southern India.
That is, until he decides to bungee jump.
3816 Woodruff Ave., Long Beach, (562) 452-7772
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.