by Elizabeth Winslow • Photography by Kate Lesueur
On first glance, you might not peg blonde, bright-eyed Sidney Roberts as a neighborhood pusher, but you might notice her knowing smile as she watches customers rapturously inhale food at her G’Raj Mahal Café and Lounge. “That’s the crack we put in the food,” she says in a deadpan way. Even though she’s kidding, it’s not too much of a stretch to assume there must be something habit-forming in the inspired dishes dreamed up by Roberts, a native Austinite, and brought to life by her Indian-born husband and chef Anthony Fernandes—because there is. The “crack” Roberts pushes is in the form of expertly created spice blends, meticulously researched and adjusted until perfect.
“I’ve always been interested in healthy food and global flavors,” Roberts says. In early adulthood, she followed a stint at a local catering company with travel—letting her nose carry her to stages and internships across the country. She landed first at Table of Contents, a lauded conscious-cuisine restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota, then finally at Bistro de Sole in nearby Wayzata, where she met and worked with Fernandes—piecing together a menu inspired by the cuisines of Provence, Tuscany and the Mediterranean Riviera. “We were both someplace we weren’t supposed to be,” she says with a laugh. “It was cold and dreary, and here were two people from sunny, laid-back, happy places—Texas and India—slogging along.” The couple set their sights on a move to Austin, intent on opening an Indian trailer/restaurant with lighter, brighter flavors than those found in the typical Indian buffet fare.
Fernandes hails from Goa, where the cuisine is influenced by its proximity to the Arabian Sea; its history as a Portuguese colony with heavy use of pineapple, tomato and chilies brought by the Europeans; and a fondness for pork, from the region’s Catholic colonialists. He was already armed with his mother’s recipes and an authentic palate, while Roberts mixed up signature spice blends and tested updated recipes for favorites such as hand-rolled, flaky samosas, chicken tikka and rogan josh, as well as hard-to-find Goan specialties like sorpotel (a tangy, fragrant pork chili) and pan-sautéed rechaad masala (an aromatic red chili with seafood and hints of cinnamon and clove). Roberts made the move to Austin first—her son Oscar working tirelessly alongside to help get the trailer prepared. Her daughter Emerald stayed behind in Minnesota to train with Fernandes before the G’Raj Mahal team converged back in Texas for the opening.
Every ingredient that comes out of G’Raj Mahal’s kitchen is made from scratch—including the yogurt, chutneys, breads and desserts. Roberts has always relied on high-quality, fresh ingredients, and works with many local farmers and ranchers, including Johnson’s Backyard Garden and IO Ranch. “Farm-to-table is not a ‘thing’ in India,” Roberts explains. “It’s just what you do to get great ingredients. When my husband was growing up, my mother-in-law knew where to get the best eggs, the best seafood and the best meat and vegetables. That understanding of quality is what we’re committed to here, too.”
Clearly, it’s that quality that keeps customers coming back. In 2013, G’Raj Mahal moved from the original trailer to a new lively, offbeat brick-and-mortar space down the road, where customers can enjoy their favorite dishes outside on the breezy patio, indoors in the shimmering dining room or out back in the exotic, fabric-draped lounge. “We want people to feel at home here,” Roberts says. “Because no matter how good the food is, it’s really about how you make people feel. We want people to feel like family.”