Photos By Clarissa Villondo, Words By Logan Hollers
Let’s get this out there right away – Grand Trunk isn’t exactly a normal fast casual restaurant.
The interior is loud and mismatched and intense and there are TV’s in the glass floor. There’s a doorman in a suit that opens the door for you when you enter. THE BATHROOMS ALL HAVE GODDAMN BIDETS, PEOPLE. If you’re cool with a certain level of kitsch, you’ll dig it here.
And dig it you should – for a place that’s been open only six weeks, Grand Trunk has already demonstrated a strong commitment to its core ideal: “gourmet food, served fast.”
The restaurant, owned by brothers who are natives of D.C., was inspired by the Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s oldest and longest major trade routes (thanks, Wikipedia!) and is truly a family affair. The menu is a mix of Indian recipes passed-down through their family and American classics with a Middle Eastern twist (see, e.g, naan burger).
Grand Trunk has a huge focus on quality and freshness – almost everything is made in-house, and the only food products that ever see the inside of a freezer are the fries and the ice cream. Also, in a badass display of community support, the restaurant gives any unused food at the end of the day to local food banks and shelters.
But you’re here for the food, right? Fine. Start with something crunchy – the pakoras, a mix of breaded vegetable fritters, are fine; a lighter hand on the batter would help highlight the vegetable a bit more. That said, dunk them in the accompanying spicy cilantro sauce and you’ve got some good eats. Garlic fries are exactly that: fresh fries, crispy, salty, and garlicky. Gimme.
Maybe you’re in the mood for a bowl. The two best? The Gujranwala lamb masala (named after the owners’ grandmother’s hometown) and the Agra chicken tikka masala. The lamb is so, so tender; the sauce, deep and rich, thanks to a mixture of pureed tomatoes, green chilis, onion and roasted cumin (and mom’s secret garam masala spice mix, natch). The chicken tikka is even better – bright orange yogurt tomato sauce is the perfect blend of subtle sweetness and a hint of heat. Both are available with either basmati rice or house-made naan (easy choice – naan all day).
Indian cuisine is very friendly to vegetarians, and Grand Trunk is no exception. Numerous vegetarian and vegan options make this a great place for non-meat eaters.
Try the dal. The dal tarka is almost a lentil soup, creamy and loose; better is the dal makhani, a thicker, more rustic dish with bolder flavor thanks to an overnight soak and a cook with ginger, red chilis, and whole spices.
Remember that commitment to freshness? The sabzi, seasonal vegetables sautéed with Indian spices, changes daily based on what’s freshest that day. We had a mix of cauliflower, peas, and carrot – it more than held its own as one of the best dishes on the table.
Any Indian joint worth its salt has to make its own naan, right? Grand Trunk has a huge tandoor oven front and center upstairs, pumping out numerous different versions of the delicious flatbread. Garlic naan was as good as it sounds (obviously); cinnamon sugar naan and, especially, a spicy chocolate naan that reminded me of a molé made for a sweet ending. Not digging these choices? Head over to their Facebook page, where they continually take requests for new naan options (coming soon, peanut butter and jelly naan!).
And that, of course, brings us to Grand Trunk’s signature item: the naan burger. I love burgers. I love naan. I wasn’t sure I would love a naan burger. I was wrong. It was dope. My one quibble was that the naan was too big, threatening to overwhelm the burger itself. Despite that, I kept going back in for another bite. Fresh lettuce, fresh tomato, a mint chutney to give some moisture, and two marinated beef patties. This is a damn good use of $8.00.
Grand Trunk is close to the National Mall, pumps out good food quickly and for cheap, and is opening up an outdoor lounge area and patio now that winter finally got the memo to gtfo. An outdoor stand selling ice cream and mango lassi (made every day by the owners’ dad, because of course it is) is in the works, as well. Grand Trunk is not your traditional fast casual experience. If this is the future of fast casual cuisine, I’m on board.