Ever wonder what makes some of Little Rock’s food personalities tick? Food Insider takes a look at individuals who are helping change the landscape of our city’s culinary scene. Whether they’re in the kitchen, managing a storefront, farming land or running a food truck … we’ll delve into both the professional and personal side of these dynamite people. This week, it’s Sami Lal of Star of India.
Early in our interview, Star of India owner Sami Lal told me he opened the restaurant in March of 1993. I paused for some quick math and realized that meant Star of India is just two months away from 25 years of business. It is a monumental achievement for any restaurant to stay in business that long, much less an Indian restaurant in Arkansas. Hoping for some news to report, I asked Sami what kind of celebration he was planning for the occasion. He paused for a second, and in his broken but oh-so-charming English, he said, “We’ll be open as usual.”
And that, in a sentence, is Sami Lal, one of the most unlikely personalities in Little Rock’s food scene. At once unassuming and humble, yet with the most magnetic of personalities, Sami is the kind of restaurateur that can make your first visit feel like a trip to your favorite spot. It is the very rare instance that one walks through the door of Star of India and isn’t greeted personally by Sami, usually by name with a “My friend!” tacked on. While I was chatting with him, Sami three times got up to greet someone by name. It’s one of those personal gifts that very few people have.
“What happens, the Lord has blessed me,” said Sami. “I don’t remember anybody, but God comes to my tongue. He’s the one who remembers, I don’t.”
Sami was born in Nakodar, a town in the northern Indian state of Punjab. The second of six children, he fell in love with cooking at a very early age. Sami would watch his mother prepare meals in the kitchen, and he says her recipes are what inspired the food on Star of India’s menu.
“(The dishes are) the same thing,” said Sami. “I was watching, when I was a small child, I was watching how she cooked, and when I go to school and I would come home and was watching her, how to do it.”
Sami took that love of cooking into adulthood and traveled to Hamburg, Germany, where he learned to cook European styles of food that were uncommon in India. Then in 1982, he moved to Dallas to continue his cooking training and hopefully open a restaurant. But he found the dining scene in Dallas wouldn’t work with what he wanted to do, and started looking to nearby cities. That led him to Little Rock, a place he had never before visited. It was just right, and Star of India opened in 1993.
“I was coming every week to find a location, because I never knew, before, Little Rock,” said Sami.
Today, Star of India is an institution, and that is thanks in no small part to Sami’s devotion to excellence. His food is outstanding; when I traveled to India last year, I was shocked to find just how authentic Star of India is. But if you want to get at the heart of his success, it’s in Sami’s customer service, which is some of the finest you will ever find.
“Why I provide good service, it’s like being a husband and wife,” said Sami. “A husband and wife have to be equal to be good, and the food and service have to be equal. When the service and food are equal, that makes people happy.”
If you’ve never been to Star of India because the thought of eating Indian food scares you, I would urge you go put those fears aside. Sami does a fantastic job of matching people to menu items, claiming that nobody has complained about his picks since he first opened the restaurant. And don’t worry about missing him. Sami is always there, from the first lunch buffet customer until the last dinner guest leaves.
“I do take a day off sometimes,” said Sami. “But I love to work, and I love to see my people and they love me, too. And I prefer less “take off” and more taking care of my people.”