PANAMA CITY — Holi Indian Grill celebrated its anniversary in Panama City on Sept. 5 — marking one year of sharing the "Flavor of Joy" with the community.
"We've been getting a lot of support from Panama City," said owner Ankit Patel, originally from Nadiad, Gujarat, in India. "This is pure authentic food; 95% is made in-house. Nothing is frozen; it's made from scratch."
Patel opened the Panama City location in September 2018, while his business partner and childhood friend operates a second location that opened June 13, 2019, in Fort Walton Beach. Patel went to school for business, but gravitated toward food.
"Wherever you go, whatever you do, you need food to survive. Food is never going to drop in the future," said Patel, who resides in Panama City with his wife and their 4-year-old son. "My hobby is cooking at home."
But a chef and kitchen staff cook at Holi Indian Grill. The restaurant is named after the ancient Hindu festival, known as the "festival of colors." Holi celebrates the arrival of spring and good over evil in a joyous event that includes throwing colored powders and water balloons.
With brightly colored umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, and vibrant photos and tapestries — in shades of blue, pinks and purple, green and gold — on the walls, Holi Indian Grill is as colorful as its name suggests.
Fur Fur "fryers," made with rice flour, food color and salt that puff up when fried, are the only things they don't make from scratch. Served with tamarind and cilantro mint chutneys, they whet the appetite for more Indian specialties. Patel's favorite appetizer is the Onion Bhajia, a deep fried fritter infused with carom seeds.
Holi's meats, including 200 pounds of chicken purchased weekly from a wholesale vendor in Atlanta, are halal. The restaurant, which uses local vendors for produce, also accommodates gluten-free, vegan and Jain diets.
Customers are asked to name their spice level from one to five (mild to hot) for the dishes they order — and there's an Indian spicy that's off the scale. (Patel has been known to go for the heat to ward off a winter cold.) Spice levels are increased by the addition of chilies.
"Authentic spice level is medium," said Patel, who explained some dishes start above a level one just from the abundance of spices that go into creating it. "Lamb shank is one of our signature dishes; it's hard to make a spice level zero. For big batches, we add more spices, and it takes three to four hours to cook a batch of lamb."
Indian spices on the slow-braised Lal Mass Lamb Shank — which impart more flavor than heat — include star anise, cinnamon, bay leaves, mace, black cardamom and cloves.
"Some people are scared of Indian food, but it's not hot. That's why we ask you for the spice level; customize your spice level," said Patel, who also pointed out the health benefits of the spices — printed on sheets visible beneath the glass top tables. "Every spice has its own benefit."
Other Indian spices include curry leaves, caraway seeds, nigella seeds, fennel, mace, asafoetida, mustard seeds, saffron, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, fenugreek — adding color, fragrance and flavor to the dishes. Even the restaurant's entry table features a bowl of Indian spices to help customers make the visual connection before the palate celebrates.
The Chicken Tikka Masala also is popular, especially with Naan to soak up the creamy, tomato-based curry sauce.
"The Chicken Tikka Masala was very flavorful," said Panama City native Jo Marshall, who admitted, "I don't like things very spicy."
But Marshall, who owns Only Herbs Gourmet Seasoning, does like an abundance of fresh flavors — and sauces. And she was back for her second visit to introduce her daughter, Laura Auvil, to the Indian cuisine.
"The soup is amazing," Auvil said after enjoying the creamy tomato soup flavored with garlic and Tikka Masala.
Mother and daughter agreed they could even go up one spice level after starting with the mild.
The dum rice of the biryanis really soaks up the spices, while the yogurt-marinated paneer (Indian cottage cheese) can accommodate a higher level of spice without being overpowering. For me, a level two biryani is perfect, comparable to a level three paneer — giving just enough kick. (And, according to the spice sheet on the table, chilies help with cholesterol — a win-win.)
The biryani is served resembling a little pot pie, a steaming crowd-pleaser — whether filled with chicken or lamb.
"Whenever we cook, we put all spices and meats on frying pan and cover it with naan. Then we put in the clay oven and serve it to customer, fresh and hot; it looks really good," Patel said.
I love the texture of the Paneer Tikka Tandoori and Paneer Tikka Achari, served on a skewer with green bell peppers and onions. The slightly crisp cubes of paneer with charred edges impart all the taste of the clay oven. Be sure to take them for a dip in the cilantro mint chutney. The saltier Achari imparts even more flavor from the pickling spices.
I've had Holi's plain naan, butter naan, garlic naan and the cheese garlic naan (with four different cheeses); the last two are my favorite. All of the soft naan is baked in the 3½-by-4 foot clay oven.
New Holi Special items include the Butter Chicken; Lamb Chops Curry; and Matka Chicken — which must be ordered 24 hours early. The Matka Chicken, cooked in an Indian pot over a fire for nearly four hours, is a recipe from Patel's hometown.
"In India, some restaurants don't have gas lines and came up with a way to cook in the fire," Patel said. "The clay's fragrance and everything comes through on your food, and it is really good for health. Only a tablespoon of oil is used in mixing with the spices."
Other dishes in the clay oven take 15 to 20 minutes, but that can double when it's busy. Curries take 10 to 15 minutes. The Holi Lunch Special, offered weekdays, includes a curry with rice and naan.
"I love our regular customers; they say they understand pure authentic takes time," Patel said. "I have 10 to 15 customers that come every week."
Those customers bring more regulars.
"They say, 'Look, I got somebody new here, a new customer for you,'" said Patel, who said they're known as "future customers."
Some regulars became fans of Holi after Hurricane Michael.
"It was the first time for me to see a hurricane," Patel said. "I came out and looked at the restaurant. Not a single glass was broken, but I opened the door and the ceiling fell out from the damage. There was bad damage passing through 23rd Street, literally nothing there. I said, 'Let's do something for the community; they have no food or water.'"
Beginning the next day, Patel and his business partner brought in food and water from Dothan, Alabama, and began offering vegetable curry, chicken curry and black masala chicken — things they could prepare in large batches. They gave out 600 meals after the hurricane, first for free, then for $5 to cover costs of food, water and gas.