Trushar Patel is Hyde Park’s resident master of muttar paneer and collard greens, proprietor of our favorite vegetarian combos, and the top vendor in the South Side’s underground incense market. On a Sunday afternoon, he sat down for a minute during his busy schedule to tell us about his role in the neighborhood’s most interesting marriage: the combination of Soul and South Asian cuisine. Trushar Patel’s Rajun Cajun has been serving up curries and comfort food for twenty-two years.
How did Rajun Cajun start?
Well I’ve been living here for twenty-two years. We knew that there was no Indian restaurant in Hyde Park, so we decided to open one in Hyde Park. I used to live in the North Side before, but for the past fifteen years, I’ve been in Hyde Park. This used to be a Cajun restaurant. When I came here and I bought the place, we were going to phase out everything of the Cajun part, but it was a very new business, and also a very run-down business when I bought it. So we decided to keep some soul food items in particular. Because, you know, Cajun food has beef and pork and alligator and crawfish and all that stuff–we got rid of all those things.
Do you think soul goes well with Indian food? Do first-time customers get the concept?
Not necessarily. But with the neighborhood, it goes well. I just kept it. It was working.
What were you doing before Rajun Cajun? Tell me your story.
I was born in Africa, in Nairobi, and I went to school in India, and then to college in India also. My background is in industrial electrical engineering. I came here [the United States] in ’78 and I couldn’t find a job. I would have had to take two to three more years of courses to work, but of course, I didn’t have any money. Three months here, with no job, I just thought okay, I need to get a job. Then I said, take whatever comes. I applied to McDonalds, and I ended up working there for fourteen years. I was very successful there. The owner saw my potential and, within a year, I was a swing manager. Within two years I was a manager, within three, four years, I was a store manager, then after six years I was the supervisor of five stores.
I was in the process to get my own store, and that’s when my son was born. He was born premature, and we had extremely high hospital bills, basically all my savings went to his medical care. And then I knew I couldn’t afford to get my own store, so I got out of the [McDonald’s] system. With my brother-in-law’s help–who actually works here now–I was able to buy this place. And it’s been pretty successful. And more successful than I could have done with the other plan, I think.We’re still here.
Who are your customers?
Mostly students, I would say fifty percent students, ten percent visitors, and the rest, forty percent, just regular people from the neighborhood. Actually, I have a lot of support from African-American Muslims, who are followers of Minister Farrakhan; most of the people from that mass come here after the mass, because most of them are vegetarian and, of course, they don’t eat pork, so they love our place.
Has the restaurant always been such a success?
The first five years were very bad. Without the help of family members, we wouldn’t have survived. Hyde Park is a very high rent area between rent and utilities. I still remember, I could barely survive when I first took over the business. I had only one employee and four from the family. Now I have nine employees and four of our family plus me. So now I have fourteen people who work here. It’s a huge growth. Â In just about every newspaper, I’ve been written about. It really helps. You know, I was in the first-ever issue of the RedEye.
What do you like to cook? How did you develop your dishes?
Now I oversee everything, but I can cook everything as well. Every single recipe is mine. All the vegetarian options I learned from my mom. She was very strict when I was growing up so I had to study in the kitchen. So I would see what she was doing, and that’s how I learned what to do. The meat options, I learned from the books, but of course, I have made my own changes over time. My favorite to prepare is butter chicken. My favorite to eat is butter chicken, so I guess that’s why I like to make that. If I go to any Indian restaurant, that’s the only thing I eat: butter chicken and naan. I’ve always been very fond of butter chicken.
This really is a labor of love. I am here seven days a week, fourteen hours a day every single day, 363 days a year. No vacation, no day off. [The restaurant is closed two days a year.]Â Basically all family members work with me, but not all of them, all of the time. My wife use to be with me here, but now she does a very small part-time [shift]. We give a very good personalized service to all our customers. The health department loves us… I even do catering for the health department.
Any other interesting catering requests?
Well, I have done one student wedding. It happened in Ida Noyes. It was an Indian girl and a white guy. They used to come in here all the time. The funny thing was, they were so against the Styrofoam I use, so they brought in their own plates. You know, I wish I could change those things. The other options are too expensive.
What do you wish people knew about you and your food?
Sometimes people don’t believe I am from Africa–I don’t why. I don’t know what is so unusual for an Indian person to be from Africa! There are so many Indians in Africa, especially in Africa. So what am I supposed to do, eh? Carry a birth certificate with me?
Hmm, another thing I want to tell people is that typically soul food has ham products–our greens, as a matter of fact, are vegan. We used to use animal products, that’s how we were trained to make things in this business. Customers kept asking and we listened. We have vegan and vegetarian options. We only serve lamb, fish, and chicken. No beef, no pork, no byproducts of those [animals].
Tell me about the postcards on the wall.
Those are mostly from UofC students. They are missing the samosas, the mango lassis. We always treated some of those students like family, you know. Actually a lot of students have come to my house for parties! I used to throw a lot of parties, not anymore, but I did.
What about the agarbatti (incense) by the cash register?
The agarbatti is sold there because I still pray, every morning, and in the evening also. We used to burn incense here and people started asking about it, and now have like fifty, sixty different varieties of agarbattis here. They sell a lot. Matter of fact, I buy some non-commercial versions in India, wholesale, which is a very good, high quality incense. Also very high-end, 300 rupees just for one packet! That’s a lot of money, just for twenty-five sticks of agarbatti. Mostly African Americans buy it. Some white people…but mostly African Americans.
Actually it’s a huge market here in Hyde Park for agarbattis. I’m not the only one who is selling it. There is a health food store there [points down 53rd Street] that sells, the corner cigar store sells, I am selling it. There is a bookstore on Harper that sells, there is the dollar store that sells…it’s a huge, huge market for agarbatti. Of course, they all don’t have very good quality.
Who picks the music playing in the restaurant?
I have always loved music. Of course, my wife was getting mad at me since I have about 5,000 CDs–all Indian. From old, to new, to classical, to hip-hop, to bhangra, to everything. You name me a song, I can get you a song. Nothing is downloaded. I bought every single CD, I have boxes and boxes of them. So, now, I’ve converted them all into MP3s, to compress it down. So I just put in one CD in the morning, which is prayers. In the morning, I always put in prayers, which lasts about five hours. Every single God’s prayers is one CD–all the mantras. Then we just put in a CD and it plays for hours. People have asked about the music too. I used to sell CDs sometimes, but I don’t anymore. I’m not into that very much.
Do you take requests?
Do you have any visions for Rajun Cajun?
Well, now that the University has bought this building and they are my landlord, I can now redo my storefront. I’ve been wanting to put in new glass here, but haven’t been able to. Now I can. I’m very happy to have the University as my landlord. I have a very good connection with the University. Another dream is that I have always wanted to open a sit-down restaurant. But the rent here is so high or there is not enough space. I don’t think students could afford it. I just can’t do it. I’m also getting old, I have some health problems…I just don’t think I can do that. But if I do anything else it would have to be only in Hyde Park. You know, I have love for this place. I love this place.
So, how do you really say the name of this restaurant?
Well, it should be “Raw-jan Cay-jun.” It’s not “Rage-un Cay-jun.” But we just go with the flow, whatever the customer wants to say is fine [laughs]. At least it would sound somewhat Indian, we thought.
You know students call it “Rage Cage”?
Oh, I do too.