When Heena Patel’s husband sold their liquor store in Terra Linda, God opened a window. Well, it’s probably an understatement to call Besharam a window, Patel’s thriving Gujarati restaurant in Dogpatch is more like a revolving door: Her dining room was named Eater’s San Francisco Restaurant Of The Year in 2019. She recently picked up a James Beard nomination as a semi-finalist in the California chef category. And her newly-revamped, completely vegetarian menu is full of deep cuts and family recipes from the Gujarati region in India where Patel grew up, not a hint of Chicken Tikka Masala in sight. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, Patel has something eternal and holy on her side — she’s honoring the legacy of her ancestors.
“I’m not the stereotypical chef,” Patel shared in a recent phone interview about the story of her restaurant’s success. “I speak very softly. I have gray hair. I feel like I’m crossing all the boundaries — I had to work hard to be a chef. My grandmother and my mom, if they had this opportunity, I bet they’d be better cooks than me. I want to highlight them and highlight their cooking. I’ve never been to culinary school, my school was seeing my grandmother and my mom, their confidence, and how much pride they felt when they cooked at home.”
Patel was born and raised in a small village in the western Indian state of Gujarat. She moved to California with her husband in 1992, and the couple had focused on running their “liquor and flower shop” for over 20 years before finally selling it. But when Heena and her husband Pareesh handed over their family-run business, they didn’t, as she puts it, “have the luxury to retire.” With a dream of opening a restaurant growing inside her, and one business coming to a close, Patel was at a crossroads. Enlisting a friend of her daughters for help with a business plan, that friend recommended Patel apply for La Cocina, a restaurant incubator program dedicated to supporting working-class women of color and immigrants. In 2013, when Patel applied, five recipients were chosen out of 150 applicants, and she was one of them.
Over the next five years, she carefully honed both her marketing mindset and cooking skills, working within the incubator to learn strategy and gain the necessary experience to run a successful restaurant. “I didn’t have anyone in my family that I felt like I could follow in their footsteps, or seek their guidance on how to run a restaurant,” she remembered. “The only thing I knew was that my food was good, and I wanted to help support my family with my ability to cook good food. La Cocina gave me the language to sell my own food. They’re the first ones that didn’t ask ‘Where is the Chicken Tikka?’ or say ‘This doesn’t sound familiar.’ They were more excited as I cooked deeper into my own Gujarati food.”
Opening as part of the Minnesota Street Project in 2018, Besharam replaced one of Daniel Patterson’s Alta restaurants at the location. In deference to her partner, Patel initially included meat within first iterations of the menu, but eventually split from Patterson in 2019 and relaunched the menu on her own terms: completely vegetarian offerings from a lifelong vegetarian chef. Heena’s style pairs California produce with the western India cooking techniques she learned from the matriarchs in her family. As experts at Eater, James Beard, and plenty of other culinary institutions agree, you won’t miss the meat. You won’t even be thinking about it.
Instead, Besharam’s menu is split into four distinct categories, named after major cities within the Gujarat region: Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, and Rajkot. This playfully disparate organizational system includes offerings like the savory puff pastry, Pav Bhaji Puffs with cheddar cauliflower, Malal Koftas (potato dumplings) with makhani sauce (think buttery tomato-y perfection) and paneer croquettes, or a loving tribute to her husband, Paresh’s Paratha (flatbread) with Point Reyes Blue Cheese and meyer lemon. Along the bottom of the menu a delightful trifecta proclaims meal-perfecting additions: Chutney. Pickles. Rice & Breads.
On Heena’s menu, little gem lettuce lives alongside Urad Dal cakes and coconut chutney. Get an order of Samosas paired with mint cilantro chutney, and meat will be the last thing on your mind — though an option to get the crispy dumplings filled with “impossible meat” is on offer. Fresh turmeric, pounded mango chutney, chili garlic and Jeera Rice (basmati with cumin seeds and lemon) are standouts from the menu’s accoutrement sections, and the amount of flavor these traditional additions provide is enough to justify their extra cost. Heena’s menu is a bunch of puzzle pieces waiting to be put together in any number of creative ways, a series of building blocks designed to interlock.
“Cooking gives me so much therapy,” Patel said. “That’s why I called this place Besharam, it means ‘shameless.’ I want my food to have a little bit of age to it, as well, it gives me the freedom to showcase how my food has evolved with me. I have more confidence than when I started two or three years ago, but also, I feel like I can do more. For me, running this business as a first-generation immigrant, I want to support more women like me. All my staff in the back of the house, they are young, but they’re first-generation immigrants like me. Nobody’s Indian, but that doesn’t matter. Because I see the drive in their eyes, and I connect with them.”
That connection is part of what’s powering Besharam’s offering for Women’s History Month. Partnering with her own prep cook, Laura Rojo, the pair of women chefs have created a special menu that fuses their two culinary traditions. Next Thursday, March 17, Besharam is offering a one-night-only “Gujarat meets Mexico City” menu, a prix fixe that “is intended to tell a story about resiliency and second chapters through dishes that reveal Heena and Laura’s respective journeys to the kitchen.” The menu will run for $85 a person, with optional $30 wine pairings chosen by Pareesh, who now runs the beverage program at the restaurant. For those up in the Bay and able to attend, reservations are available right here.
Though she might have initially worried that cooking deeply local, regional Indian food wasn’t something that would appeal to an American palate, Heena’s doubts have been put to rest by the demand and interest in her food. Especially after the pandemic, the appetite for original dishes and deeper, immersive connection to other cultures is stronger than ever. “As a chef, I feel like that stress is gone,” Heena said. “People are wanting more original dishes. They want to connect me, with the food, with the menu. That’s an exciting time as a chef. I want to go even deeper. I’m doing this because I want to talk to you about more than cuisine, I want to talk to you about the culture. And I can share that with the food, and as a chef, that’s what I want to see even more of.”
Learn more about Besharam here.