Meet the family bringing authentic Maharashtrian street food to Silicon Valley.
Puranpoli is quite literally a family-run restaurant.
Roshan Shivalkar opened the Maharashtrian restaurant in Santa Clara the same day the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order took effect. His older sister is the “backbone” of the Indian restaurant while his 54-year-old mother is the head chef. His American brother-in-law has been entrusted to make just two dishes on the menu — vada pav (a deep-fried potato dumpling stuffed inside a squishy-soft bun with chutney) and sabudana vada (crispy fried patties made from tapioca pearls, potatoes, peanuts and herbs). His close friend, who he considers a brother, helps deliver food throughout the Bay Area and makes sure dishes leave the kitchen with all the correct toppings and sauces.
Shivalkar, who grew up in Mumbai, is the restaurant’s hype man. He chats up customers coming in for takeout and uses Puranpoli’s social media pages to drive business.
The family lives and works together out of both love and necessity. When Puranpoli first opened, in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, Shivalkar didn’t want to hire any additional staff who could potentially bring the virus into the restaurant.
“It was kind of scary,” he said of opening a new restaurant with no name recognition in the midst of a pandemic, as well-heeled restaurants went dark across the country. “But we decided if COVID is going to take us down, maybe we go out fighting.”
Shivalkar, 28, never planned to open a restaurant in Silicon Valley. He was born in Ratnagiri, a coastal town in Maharashtra in western India, and grew up poor on the streets of Mumbai. He played soccer with no shoes and had no bathroom of his own. He never learned how to drive a car. His father died when he was 3 years old. He credits his sister, Sheetal Shivalkar Avery, with taking care of him and his mother.
Shivalkar came to the United States in 2016 on a student visa to play soccer and attend college. To make ends meet, he worked nights as a dishwasher at Falafel Bite in Sunnyvale, where he befriended the husband-and-wife owners, John Elgani and Summer Abdelghani. Shivalkar offered them his skills in marketing, which he was studying, to revamp their Yelp and Instagram pages. He eventually became Falafel Bite’s manager.
When a new Falafel Bite location in Santa Clara started failing, Shivalkar saw an opportunity. He offered to purchase half of the business, as long as he could mold it into the restaurant he wanted it to be. The couple agreed, and Puranpoli was born.
Shivalkar wanted to bring quality Maharashtrian food to the Bay Area, which he said was “not up to standards.” The vegetarian street food draws heavily from coconut and potatoes — two cheap, versatile ingredients that are common in Maharashtra, Shivalkar said.
At Puranpoli, they cook everything from scratch, including ukadiche modak, sweet rice flour dumplings that take 45 minutes to make to order. Only Shivalkar’s mother is trusted to make the dense, plump dumplings filled with jaggery and coconut; the younger generation just doesn’t have the touch, he joked.
Shivalkar claims they are the only restaurant in the United States to serve the labor-intensive dumplings every day. Modak are usually only made once a year for Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrating the birth of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of beginnings. A golden Ganesha statue guards the entrance to Puranpoli with a single modak sitting in front of him as an offering.
“For our family it’s not about the money,” Shivalkar said. “We try and give people a taste of our culture.”
The restaurant is named after another Maharashtrian specialty: a charred, pillowy flatbread filled with chana dal sweetened with jaggery. It’s best eaten piping hot off the griddle and drizzled with the restaurant’s housemade ghee. (Shivalkar wanted to name the restaurant Modak after his favorite dessert, but gave in to his sister’s desire to pay homage to puran poli. “This the least I owe her, the name of the restaurant,” he said.)
They opened Puranpoli with just six dishes on the menu. Shivalkar said he was inspired by the minimalist menu model that’s brought In-N-Out so much success.
Located in a business park just off Hwy. 101, Puranpoli is the kind of place that pre-pandemic would have been swarmed at lunchtime with employees from the nearby tech companies. But things were slow at first. They were barely making rent and didn’t have the funds to pay for advertising or the commission fees charged by third-party delivery apps.
So Shivalkar, the ever-resourceful marketing major, posted ads about the restaurant to online Indian community groups. He offered free delivery for orders over to $50 to customers in the East Bay — one of whom happened to be an Indian celebrity who then posted about Puranpoli to Bay Area Desi, an online hub for the local Indian community. People started coming to the restaurant from as far as Dublin, Oakland and San Francisco. They expanded delivery to Mountain View, Palo Alto, Redwood City, San Mateo, Foster City.
Puranpoli attracts both Maharashtrian transplants craving a taste of home and Americans who are exploring the regional cuisine for the first time, Shivalkar said.
To newcomers, he recommends pav bhaji, a thick tomato and potato curry served with pav, or aloo frankie, a mix of potato, onions and spices wrapped in chapati flatbread. He might bring you a creamy mango lassi spiked with cardamom, nutmeg and one secret spice he won’t disclose.
But the misal pav, a spicy curry made from coconut, onions, tomatoes, sprouts and spices, isn’t to be missed. Like “Indian pho,” Shivalkar says, you amp up the curry with toppings — diced red onion, a squeeze of lime and sprinkling of farsan, a mix of crunchy, fried snacks. The buttery pav served on the side are the perfect tempering vehicle for the spicy curry.
Shivalkar said their success has felt like “lovely chaos.” Some days, it feels almost like a dream he’s waiting to wake up from.
“To be honest, I never thought I could make it to America in the first place. I am an average guy who’s supposed to work like average people and die like average people,” Shivalkar said. “I am not supposed to be in the richest country of the world, the richest area in the world, the tech hub of the world … opening an Indian restaurant and people loving it.”
Puranpoli recently opened for outdoor dining, lucky to have a patch of tree-shaded grass in front of the restaurant that could accommodate several socially distant tables. It’s brought a small spike in business, Shivalkar said, including people who come to pick up to-go orders and decide to stay to eat. On a recent afternoon, an Indian family did just that, as Shivalkar enthusiastically told them the restaurant’s origin story from a safe distance.
The restaurant was built on hard work and the generosity of others, from a couple who welcomed Shivalkar into their home when he first arrived from India to his mother, who labors over a hot stove 12 hours a day without pay because she wants her son to succeed. He believes in paying it all forward.
“I try my best to serve the community,” Shivalkar said. “What is richness without helping people?”
Puranpoli // 3074B Scott Blvd., Santa Clara; 408–352–5949
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