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American as Keema Kale Pizza Pie

Oakland’s Preeti Mistry isn’t about to let anyone put her (or her pizza) in a box.

SLIDESHOW

At Navi Kitchen in Emeryville, a Neapolitan-style pizza crust meets Indian toppings.

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Preeti Mistry at her Emeryville restaurant, Navi Kitchen.

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An asparagus-topped version of Mistry’s Indian-Neapolitan pizza.

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On a recent Friday night, dinner service at Juhu Beach Club was in high, ecstatic gear. “It was bumping,” Preeti Mistry recalls. “There were all these people there having a great time.” One of the benefits of being the restaurant’s chef and co-owner is that she can play whatever music she wants to, and on this night, Mistry wanted to play A Tribe Called Quest. So she did. “And there was this guy going crazy.… It was, ‘This type of music is inappropriate and it’s garbage music.’ So it was just getting kind of racist,” Mistry says. She went to the customer’s table and introduced herself. “I said, ‘OK, you’re being really rude, so we’re gonna comp your whole dinner. I don’t need your business.’”

The guy ended up staying. “People can be so weird,” Mistry says, shaking her head. “I mean, normally we try to be so accommodating. I guess there’s a certain amount of people who don’t know what we’re all about.” The question of what Juhu Beach Club is about is one that Mistry has been answering since she opened the place in 2013. In guidebook parlance, it’s a contemporary Indian restaurant in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood that not long ago received a shout-out on an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. But it’s also, to use Mistry’s descriptor, a “very small, queer-woman-owned business” that began donating a portion of its nightly proceeds to various social justice movements long before the 2016 presidential election scared everyone awake. And the restaurant is also about Mistry herself, a first-generation immigrant whose cooking speaks eloquently of India and California and whose mohawk speaks of a desire to exist on her own terms.

On a late morning in mid-April, Mistry is at Navi Kitchen, the all-day café she and her wife, Ann Nadeau, are about to open in a quiet stretch of Emeryville. Located next to a new housing development, it sports soaring ceilings, a sign on the bathroom door that says “Your gender is beautiful,” and a wide marble bar where Mistry now sits, reflecting on “the lexicon of cuisine” she and her cooks have created at Juhu. People often ask her how she comes up with her ideas, or why chefs insist on throwing cilantro, cumin, and turmeric at a dish and proclaiming it Indian. But Mistry’s own guiding principle comes from a French chef who, during her student days at London’s Le Cordon Bleu, told her: “‘In France, we cook with logic.’ To me, it’s just that same logic. And then just, What do I crave?”

Throughout her childhood in Toledo, Ohio, Mistry craved Egg McMuffins, so at Navi, the breakfast sandwiches will be draped with American singles that melt onto housemade sausage patties stocked with ginger, garlic, toasted cumin, and cilantro and topped with ghost pepper chutney. Something else Mistry craves is pizza. And so at Navi, she’ll serve Indian pizza because, well—obviously. “It’s a no-brainer,” she says. “Naan and pizza dough are practically the same thing.” Mistry is a fan of Zante, which has been serving pizza with Indian toppings in Bernal Heights for more than 30 years, and she’s eager to put her own stamp on it. Unlike the typical thick-crusted Indian-style pizza, hers will have a Neapolitan crust that she’s developing in partnership with Brian Wood, the owner of Oakland’s Starter Bakery. There will be a keema kale pizza (keema being the Indian equivalent of sloppy joe filling), a white pie with fenugreek pesto and roasted potatoes, and a veggie number showcasing whatever’s at the market. But certain toppings will never darken Mistry’s doorstep. “There will be no chicken tikka pizza at Navi Kitchen,” she says.

Navi—which means “new” in Hindi—is one of many ideas Mistry has for expansion, a process she describes as both a necessity for her business’s survival and a function of her own desire to “get beyond the [hamster] wheel” of one restaurant. She’d like to open a tandoor-focused spot and a “fun and casual” bar, while her wife wants to add an Indian-Chinese place to the mix. Mistry also has a Juhu Beach Club cookbook coming out in the fall. The project reflects her constant experimentation, which often entails debates about how much nuance customers will be able to detect between, say, two different kinds of smashed-potato pavs (slider-like sandwiches). But for now, she’s excited to fire up Navi’s pizza oven.

“This thing has always existed, and then this thing has always existed,” she says of pizza and Indian cuisine. “And I feel like there’s so much of me that is a part of both of those things.”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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