You might call Surendra Kumar an accidental restaurateur. His Indian restaurant, Hot or Mild in Mayfield Heights, was born less out of passion than practicality. For years, his family has operated the Indo-American Grocery on SOM Center Road, a popular resource for Indian home cooks. Then one day, the neighboring tenant packed up and left.
"When the next-door tenant vacated the space, we thought we should open a restaurant, because the two businesses would complement each other," Kumar explains.
That happened in February of this year, a full seven years after the family first opened the grocery. Those seven years have provided management with invaluable demographic insight into the local Indian community — an important step often overlooked by eager hospitality newcomers.
"There are a lot of Indian people living and working in the area," he notes. And while there is no shortage of Indian restaurants, Kumar had a plan to make his stand out from the crowd. "If you look at them all, most are expensive. I looked at Chipotle and how it's able to do lunch for like $7 and I thought, 'Why not Indian food?'"
Hot or Mild accomplishes that feat by eliminating table service, for starters. In fact, there are no tables whatsoever, despite a roomy interior that would accommodate a handful of them. Instead, guests are resigned to cop a squat on one of a handful of small stools and balance the food on their knees — or better yet, take their food to go. Kumar says the lack of tables is less a policy decision than a parking one: Neighboring commercial tenants complained that his customers were hogging spots.
Hot or Mild is unique from other Indian restaurants in another way too. Customers can walk in, order a complete meal, pay and leave in under five minutes. Those "Customer Choice" deals take advantage of a wide array of prepared dishes — kind of like a buffet behind the counter. For $6.99, I walked out with a large container filled with goat curry, chicken vindaloo, basmati rice, chapati, salad and chutney. If you go the vegetarian route, the price is $6.49. There are about a half dozen options for each meal.
But the menu hardly stops there. Hot or Mild offers the full panoply of Indian starters, housemade flatbreads and some 40 vegetarian and non-vegetarian entrees. Guests electing to order off the full menu can order ahead by phone, place their order online, or simply walk in, order and wait.
On a second visit, I placed my order in person and then killed 10 minutes next door at the grocery. By the time I perused the aisles of nuts, spices, chiles, flours, ghees, paneers and produce, my dinner was ready for pick up. Starters included addictively spicy chile bajji ($2.99), finger-long hot peppers that are breaded in chickpea flour and deep fried, and papdi chaat ($3.99), a salad-like snack of fried crisps topped with various veggies and sauces. It's cool, crunchy, sweet and spicy street food.
Entree portions are on the small side — but then again, so are the prices. Chana masala ($4.99), a vegetarian dish made with chickpeas, is hearty, pleasantly spiced and filling. Lamb curry ($6.99) is dark, aggressively spiced and loaded with tender chunks of gamey lamb. If you have no qualms about eating around bones, the goat curry ($6.99) is North Indian comfort food. Grilled chapati ($0.75) is matzo-thin, multi-layered and slightly chewy. Fresh-baked naan ($1.99) is every bit as warm, puffy and buttery here as it is at the restaurants that charge double.
Dishes can be ordered mild, medium, hot or "hot-plus" — but nobody wants to call a restaurant all that, so the owners just went with "Hot or Mild." For now, the menu leans heavily toward dishes from Northern India, but Kumar intends to add more dishes from the South owing to customer demand.
Kumar says that this first Hot or Mild restaurant is a sort of concept store; if it does well, he hopes to duplicate the model in other parts of town. "We're still perfecting the system," he admits, adding that cook times can run long because everything, with the exception of the quick-serve items, is made to order.
But from the sound of things, it might not be too long before a Hot or Mild opens up near you.
"It's keeping us very busy," notes Kumar. "Not bad for a winter start."
1446 SOM Center Rd., Mayfield Heights, 440-446-8200, facebook.com/hotormild.