Kake da Hotel: Memories of Lahore flavour the dishes of this legendary eatery in New Delhi's Connaught Place

Salad, kaleji keema, roti and saag meat at Kake Da Hotel

What drives loyalty to a restaurant?

I had gone to New Delhi  to speak at The Fast Food & Café Convention a few days back. The topic of our session was about 'building consumer loyalty' in the QSR (quick service restaurant) segment. To sum up, in case you are wondering, our panel which consisted of chefs, entrepreneurs and industry observes, all concluded that the first step to building loyalty to an eatery starts with good food

Well, this post is about a restaurant which has held on to its customers for years now and has been a favourite of Delhi for more than half a century. The food here is slow cooked, though the format is that of a QSR. You stand in a queue, get a table, order, eat, smile with happiness and move on, vacating the table for the next hungry soul. This legendary restaurant is located at Connaught Place, which was considered once the hub of New Delhi and which has, I am told, had a resurgence after the Metro was built. 

The restaurant that I am talking of is Kake Da Hotel, the founders of whom had come to Delhi from Lahore during the Partition. 

During our panel in the convention (that's me in the middle)

But first, an airline where food is the last factor to drive loyalty

I went to Delhi a day before the event as I don’t want to risk being caught in any flight delays on the day of the event.  I had missed my customary pre-flight pohe and misal binge at the Aaswad counter near the Jet Airways boarding gates in the Mumbai CSIA though, as they were sold out that morning. 

Thankfully I'd made myself an egg roll for myself before leaving home for the airport. The young man at the counter at Aaswad (in the brown uniform) surprised me and said that he had seen the picture of that on my Instagram feed. "You had an egg roll this morning. I follow you on Instagram and saw it." Now you know why there wasn't any pohe left for me! 

I did buy some nice Maharashtrian chakli and shakar pada for folks in Delhi from the Aaswad stall before leaving.

This also meant that I had to depend on Jet Airways for my food and that is never a good idea these days.  The Jet Airways meal that I was served in the flight was a ghastly tray of congealed corn flour with noodles and was inedible. 

The roll couldn't keep me going for five hours though and I was famished by the time I landed at Delhi.

Nightmare on Elm Street? It's the Jet Airways in flight meal that I got
I tried the vegetarian on the way back where they served a patties
where the puff pastry tasted like a soggy diaper, after it was heated. I wonder 
if any planning goes into the food served here

Heading to the heart of New Delhi to eat

I had stayed at hotels at the Aerocity in my recent trips to Delhi and then headed to Gurgaon once my work was done, to visit my niece. This meant that I  couldn't really go to downtown Delhi on those trips. 

This time I was put up at the Lalit Hotel at Barakhamba Road, where the conference was held. I wanted to make the most of the opportunity of being based here by eating at some of the heritage restaurants near about. I am talking of the sort of places which are local favourites and which are unapologetic about serving dishes such as the butter chicken and kaali dal, with no spoons of cream held back. 

This trip would be all about traditional Delhi food favourites, I had decided, and would not feature any faux caviar, froth or foam.

Kake Da Hotel

A long due pilgrimage to Kake Da Hotel.

I was pretty clear about where I wanted to go to for lunch. This was a place called Kake Da Hotel which is located at the outskirts of Connaught Place (CP). Folks mentioned many other places there on my Facebook page, when I asked for suggestions on where to eat, and I have bookmarked them for another trip. My brother, who had worked for a while at CP and who has eaten at all the small eateries there, had his own list too, though he did mention Kake as well. Given that I was going to have one meal here, I decided to go to the big daddy of them all, Kake. 

I was warned by people that getting a table at Kake at lunch time is difficult as the queues apparently get rather long then. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait for too long to get a seat thankfully. This was possibly because I had reached there at 3.15 pm, well after lunch time. 

While I waited to get a table, I noticed that there were a number of degs/ cooking vessels kept at a counter at the entrance to the shop. Closer examination showed that they were filled with a variety of curries and dals. Under each deg was a fire. I am not sure if it was a coal oven or a gas burner. The fire meant that the food in the megs were was still simmering and cooking in the heat, and in ‘ desi ghee,’ as the sign on the wall proudly said. 

When I looked around the place, I felt a sense of déjà vu. It was almost as if I had been there before. This possibly could have been during a trip to visit the Auto Expo years back' with a former boss in a market research agency that I used to worked in then. This is before I had begun food blogging and, I must confess, that I was a bit upset that he had got us to such a simple place rather than to a ‘proper’ restaurant back then.

I had no such hang ups this time though. I rolled my suitcase in with a smile as I was directed to a table at the corner, happy to have finally made it to Kake. Luckily, I had the table to myself and I could spread out comfortably. There was a bottle of hand sanitizer on the table which was quite useful through the meal later. My brother, a regular here, told me that the section upstairs is air-conditioned. The downstairs section isn’t though, but I didn’t really feel the heat. It helped  that we were in the fag end of November. 

Some of the tables around me were occupied. Some with solo diners, one had a group of Bengalis! The seating and tables were most Spartan, but the place was clean and not smelly at all. Nor were there the tables stained with the remains of the curry of lunches long forgotten. This is the sort of place where you share tables if alone. The crowd consisted of people from all socio-economic categories, generations and gender.

What I ate

An elderly gentleman came to take my order. I knew what I wanted to eat. On the way I had consulted Amit Patnaik on this. Amit is a young food writer friend of mine who has just moved into Delhi after being in Chennai and Mumbai for quite a few years. This is the first time that Amit is actually living in Delhi, but I still trusted him to give me some good recos. 

Amit’s suggestion was that I go for the saag meat and the dahi meat and something called keema kaleji too. Since I was alone, I decided to go for two dishes and two different ones at that. So the saag meat and the kaleji kheema were my picks, plus two tandoori rotis. 

I’d asked for a Pepsi, which they said they had though the dispenser said Coke. What I got at the end was a Thums Up! 

What I didn't order this time was the bheja masala which my friend Shaswati says is a must have.

Kaleji keema at Kake Da Dhaba

The kaleji keema wasn’t liver (kaleji) cooked with minced meat (keema), as I thought it would be. It was instead, a curry made with finely chopped goat liver and other bits of offal. The presence of meat in the dish was barely visible, but the flavours of the liver had definitely infused itself into the curry. The magic of slow cooking was very evident in the meaty flavours that enveloped each bite. There was a fair bit of textural contrast between the scrunchy pieces of liver and the other parts which were softer and mushier. It was sort of dish that kept calling one back even though I felt I should not eat in excess.

Saag meat at Kake da Dhaaba

The saag meat was dish where slow cooking had rendered the goat meat, cooked in pureed spinach (saag), to tender submission, was again an example of culinary brilliance. I kept marveling at how soft the meat was. So soft that you could almost figuratively put your head on it and nap. How can meat be so soft and so utterly seductive and yet legal, I marvelled? This was indeed a very adult pleasure. There was a marrow bone on my plate and I was clearly in the sort of place where one needn't feel conscious about sucking on the marrow bone.

The rotis were nice and hot and two filled me adequately. I must make special mention of the onion, chaat masala and green chutney which was served on the house, and which tantalised one's tastebuds.

Some Kake Da Hotels regulars, such as my brother, feel that the amount of meat per dish is a bit too less to have two full rotis with and wish that the protein served was a bit more. I guess the flavoursome-ness of the curries make up for it. 

Amit had earlier told me, that one should focus on the non-vegetarian food here and that's what I did, though I did see some dals and alu gobi simmering on the pots there.

Confusing viral oral history lessons

I later looked up their website and got to know more about the history of the restaurant. According to the site, the Kake Da Hotel was set up in 1931 in Lahore by the late Amolak Ram Chopra in the Mall Road where he served hearty, full blooded, Punjabi food. He then shifted to Delhi in 1948 during the Partition and started life afresh there with an eatery of course. The business then shifted to Connaught Place in the 1950 where it still stands and is now run by a gentleman named Captain Arun Chopra. They claim to be the first to have set up an eatery in CP, which later became a restaurant hub in Delhi.  

There seems to be other restaurants with the same name today, though the website says that they do not have other branches. I must also say that there are multiple websites out there so like Puran Singh Ka Dhaba at Ambala, the history of Lake could be a bit fuzzy but I will definitely post here if I find out more.

My friend Sandy Singh, another Kake Da Hotel fan, pointed out later that the keema kaleji which he loves too, is cooked in the tak a tak style of Lahore. 'Tak a tak,' refers to the sound made when offal if finely chopped on a tava before it is cooked.

'We have no branch'

Well, whatever be its history, it was clear that the food that I tasted was the apt inheritor of a great sub-continental culinary legacy. If you haven't checked out Kake Da Hotel yet, then I suggest you do so.

Two meat dishes, two rotis and a Thums Up cost me Rs 295 in November 2017. You go to the counter and pay at the end of your meal. There’s no service charge levied.

The Instagram phone video that I shot by myself while at Kake Da Hotel:

Multiple Kake Da Hotel Websites:

The CP one: http://kdhkakedahotel.com
Another one: http://kakedahotel.com/locate-us

Go figure!

PS: What doesn't drive loyalty to a a restaurant or hotel

My expedition to Kake ended on a slightly unsavoury note though. My hotel, The Lalit Delhi, was located very close to Kake and, as advised by locals, I took an auto-rickshaw (Rs 50) to the hotel. Once there, I was told that I couldn't go in as autos were not allowed in. This, even when I pointed out that I am a hotel guest and with a large suitcase with me and that I was tired after a long flight. 

'Inconveniences our other customers,' is what the Lalit Twitter handle told me two days later in response to a tweet of mine which I made while waiting to check in. This is not the first time I've seen this classist discrimination In India though, I've seen autos, for example, not being allowed in in the new office buildings of Mumbai too. 

 I had started the post talking of loyalty and this was not the sort of welcome that builds loyalty to a hotel for sure.

Contrast this with Kake where they made it a point to get me a seat downstairs and give me an entire table as I had a big suitcase and looked tired. 

That, to me, is the mark of great hospitality and the secret of their success.