Spice It Up: Kamana Kitchen Brings Indian Flavors to Downtown
After five years, the Neighbor Island Indian restaurant comes to Oʻahu.
On the curry-yellow walls of Downtown’s Kamana Kitchen hangs a three-panel painting of the Hindu symbol Om. “It means best,” says restaurant owner Tirtha “Raj” Luitel. And some may say it’s a fitting art piece to decorate the Indian cuisine restaurant.
Before moving to the U.S. in 2008, Luitel lived in India for 20 years, working in the country’s food supply and clothing businesses. When his work brought him to the Big Island in 2011, he noticed a lack of authentic Indian cuisine. That’s what prompted Luitel to open the first Kamana Kitchen in Kona five years ago.
Restaurant owner Tirtha Luitel (left) with Kamana Kitchen’s Honolulu chef Chhiring Lama (right).
Photos: Cassidy Keola
Since then, Luitel has expanded the business, opening a second location in Hilo in 2015 (which won Top Write-In for Best Indian Restaurant in the 2017 Hale ʻAina Awards) and then one on Maui two years after. The newest Kamana Kitchen restaurant celebrated its grand opening in March 2018 in Downtown Honolulu.
The location is a one-room diner on Bishop Street, so I expected a wait for a party of three, especially during Downtown’s lunch rush. However, we were seated right away at a small wooden table in the room, which was a bit snug and warm from the lack of air conditioning. I took my time browsing over the different menus—appetizers, vegetarian, vegan, lamb, chicken, tandoori and seafood.
We started with an appetizer of the veg samosa ($6.95)—two crisp pastries stuffed with potatoes, peas, and other herbs and spices. As someone who really likes her meat, I was surprised I enjoyed the vegetarian dish, which was crunchy on the outside and smooth and soft inside. Although a bit bland, the appetizer was a nice warmup for my main dish.
Veg samosa filled with potatoes and peas with vegetables on the side.
I waited 15 minutes for the chicken tikka masala—tender pieces of boneless chicken breast roasted in a tandoor oven and sauteéd in a creamy homemade sauce. The portion size leaves you with a decent food bump. On the cheaper side of the menu—$11.95 during lunch—it’s easy to see why this dish is a popular one among customers, according to Luitel.
Everything on the lunch special menu comes with basmati rice; yellow dal (a thick gravylike sauce made from lentils); achar (chopped vegetables pickled in oil and spices); a small salad made of lettuce, cucumbers and carrots; two pieces of fluffy naan; and the vegetable curry of the day. If you’re hoping for a light lunch, this isn’t it. The flavorful yellow dal along with the chicken tikka masala made excellent dipping sauces for the soft pieces of naan. The curry was mild and sweet, just how I asked for it. Only two-thirds through my plate, I was greeted with a kanak attack.
“Everything is attended to,” says Luitel, who flies to each of his restaurants once a week. “Every week I’m in [the restaurant] because I eat, taste and test the food we’re serving.”
Chicken tikka masala served with basmati rice, dal, achar, naan and vegetable curry.
Vegetarian himself, Luitel includes a vegan and vegetarian menu at all restaurant locations. The vegetarian aloo gobi ($9.99 during lunch) is a traditional Punjabi dish with bits of cauliflower and potatoes. Also vegetarian is the chana masala ($9.99)—a healthy mixture of chickpeas and tomatoes covered in curry. These dishes are available during dinner hours as well, but cost a couple of dollars more.
“The vegetables are all locally sourced,” says Luitel. “We get some of our spices from India and some are from California.”
The mango lassi ($5.95) is a can’t miss. A refreshing blend of imported Alphonso mangoes, milk and homemade yogurt, the lassi is the perfect drink for a hot summer afternoon. Kamana also includes two additional flavored lassis on its drink menu.
The mango lassi—a refreshing mix of mangoes, milk and yogurt.
And don’t worry if you’re like me and can’t handle spicy food. Kamana allows customers to adjust the spiciness of every meal.
As for the name of the restaurant, “Kamana means to pray for another person. It’s a blessing for you,” Luitel says.
1104 Bishop St., kamanakitchen.com, (808) 537-5309, open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Sunday.