Thirty years ago, a good Indian meal in Orange County was hard to come by.
"When we opened in 1982, there were no Indian restaurants in Orange County at that time," said Arun Puri, who owns Royal Khyber Fine Indian Cuisine at South Coast Plaza Village with his wife, Urmil Puri.
Almost as a hobby — and to save commuting time — Arun Puri opened an Indian eatery on Jamboree Road and Bristol Street. It would later move to a smaller space near the Costa Mesa-Santa Ana border across from South Coast Plaza, at the invitation of the Segerstrom family.
"We were sick and tired of driving all the way to UCLA to eat good Indian food," Arun Puri explained with a laugh.
By the mid-1990s, the restaurant became a full-time passion for Arun Puri, who moved to the kitchen to lead the staff as executive chef, while Urmil became the face of the dining room.
Now celebrating three decades of naan, lamb tandoori, chicken tikki, daal soup and other traditional and modern takes on Indian cooking, the Puris are celebrating the occasion with more menu options.
Through March, an anniversary three-course, prix fixe menu for $30 offers items including spicy tandoori kebabs, tamarind-ginger-honey salad, Khyber's Nectar, salmon malabar and Arun Puri's popular rice pudding with pistachios and almonds.
The dinner includes a glass of wine or nonalcoholic beverage.
Arun Puri, who creates the restaurant's recipes, will also add to the menu in mid-April hyderabadi biryani, a meat and rice dish favored by India's elite. The dish is cooked in a painstaking steam method, Dum Pukht.
"The making of the biryani is an art — not a science, it's an art," he said.
Arun Puri, who first learned to cook in his mother's kitchen and then from experienced chefs in Dubai, uses a delicate balance of spices, curries and gravies to flavor Royal Khyber's dishes.
When the restaurant first opened, the dishes and flavors were utterly foreign to most customers, he said.
"We literally had to take the naan, break it for them and show them how to scoop it in the sauce with their hands," Arun Puri said. "That's why it's called finger-licking good."
And while there have been many challenges over the years to introduce the exotic cuisine to coastal Orange County, Arun Puri said he is ready to take his food to the fast-casual market.
He plans to open more than a dozen Indian eateries that represent the "second tier of Royal Khyber" in Orange and Los Angeles counties over the next several years, with the flagship Orange County location possibly opening later this year.
"It will be the same quality, same recipes, but at substantially lower prices," Arun Puri said.
With expansion and other plans for a growing Royal Khyber in the works, he reflected back on the restaurant that started almost nonchalantly between Indian food-loving business partners.
"I didn't know it was going to last 30 years," said a smiling Arun Puri. "I didn't know I was going to have a restaurant of this size."
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