Hemant Kishore brings fragrant Southern Indian dishes to an unlikely Las Vegas spot
At first glance, the venerable Inn Zone on Rainbow Boulevard is your ordinary old-school bar of the dive variety. There are nonstop sports on the TV screens, illuminated beer signs on the walls, classic rock on the sound system and plenty of poker-keno-o-rama machines — all the familiars. It’s also home to perhaps the most unlikely menu and venue mash-up in the valley. In the back, chef Hemant Kishore cooks up the fragrant specialties of Southern India, such as pot of biriyani and kappa and konji, out of a small kitchen-window eatery called Toddy Shop.
Biryani, rice with a stew of chicken masala
In the dining nook, Kishore is recreating the food traditions of his home state of Kerala, which is located on the subcontinent’s verdant southwestern coast. Abounding in aromatic and delicious flora, the region has been known as the “Spice Coast” for millennia. It’s a cuisine that’s not being served anywhere else in the metropolitan area.
“We use a lot of mustard seeds, red chilies, curry leaves, turmeric, coriander, cumin, fennel, garam masala, cardamom, clove and cinnamon,” Kishore says. Keralese recipes often include coconut oil, meat and milk, lending them a distinct tropical nuance. They also feature more fauna than is found in the Northern Indian restaurants around town — including beef, mutton, duck and even pork.
Kishore, who’s lived in Las Vegas for three years, first became familiar to local foodies as the talented guy who handcrafted fine breads and pastries for PublicUs, in Downtown, his skills perfected by a degree in baking from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. When that job came to a sudden end, Kishore found himself thrust into entrepreneurial waters, and he launched a prepared-meal home-delivery service. Then, late last year, his desire to run his own restaurant became a sudden but welcome reality. The Inn Zone needed a vendor to take over its food operation, and he needed a kitchen. A match was made.
Toddy Shop, which takes its name from Keralese slang for casual drinking spots, has a diverse menu divided into themes. The “Exotic” column is the most representative of Kishore’s original stomping grounds, including a pot of biriyani. It’s a clay vessel stuffed with fluffy, long-grained basmati rice topped with a rich stew of chicken masala and garnishes of cashews, raisins and crisp onion shreds. It’s a shorthand introduction to a complicated, multistage creation usually prepared for feasts in the old country. “It’s a dish we make for celebrations — holidays, festivals, weddings,” Kishore says.
Kappa and konji is a deluxe update of a workingman’s repast: turmeric-infused mashed tapioca (cassava root) is topped with shrimp, mustard seeds, curry leaves, shreds of dried coconut and dried red chili peppers. It’s a South Asian cousin to South Carolina-style shrimp and grits. The crown jewel on this menu is Queen Karimeen — a whole spice-rubbed pompano fish that’s flash-fried, then steamed in a banana leaf with onion-tomato masala sauce.
In the “Inspired” category, Kishore opens the epicurean atlas while keeping a thumb on the Kerala page. This is especially true with Indian Chopsuey, which has a great wordplay and world-mixing back story. “It’s called ‘American chop suey’ in India,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite childhood dishes.” It’s a bowl of fried egg noodles topped with a robust mélange of chili-garlic gravy, stir-fried veggies, char-grilled baby bok choy and the bullseye of a sunny-side-up egg on top. It’s quintessential and colorful comfort food.
The Asian Persuasion One is Kishore’s tribute to Las Vegas’ burgeoning Chinatown. It’s Mongolian stir-fried beef and grilled shrimp, with Korean-inflected gochujang aioli in a sesame brioche bun. Call it a pan-Asian surf-and-turf sandwich. The Market Salad shifts ingredients seasonally, including house-pickled vegetables procured at local farmers markets like the lauded Intuitive Forager. His Rasta Wings are a take on the traditional bar snack with a terrific spicy-sweet sauce.
“Classics” is the briefest section of the Toddy Shop trifold paper menu. American faves are the focus, especially the must-have-one-in-a-sports-bar hamburger. Except here, Kishore ups the game with a patty that blends beef and pork, adds in his own secret-spice sauce, and is served on Texas toast inspired by Louis’ Lunch, the purported and beloved Connecticut birthplace of the American bread-and-meat mainstay. Even his emphatically titled Hawt Wings takes Buffalo, New York’s, hot sauce and gives it Kishorean hints of fennel. They come sided with crispy, ornate lotus-root chips. It’s like snacking on a tasty mandala.
Lotus root chips
There’s also a fourth menu of full-on American bar food, from French fries to meatball sliders. Realistically speaking, not all the Inn Zone’s longtime clientele is looking for a Keralese excursion — gotta have hot dogs in the fridge. There’s still a bit of a divide between those folks and the new epicurean excursionistas parking in the lot. But it’s a friendly divergence, a bit of slight bemusement on both sides. Interestingly, Kishore is also gaining traction in the Southern Nevada expat Indian community, so his clientele has an additional contingent looking to dig into some of the most exciting dishes in town.
Toddy Shop at The Inn Zone
238 S. Rainbow Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89115