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Sunnyvale’s Hottest Late-Night Food Spot Is the 24-Hour Indian Grocery Store

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A spread of Indian food on an outdoor table, including a rice combination tray, two samosas, a mango lassi and a plate of dahi puri. A man puts one of the dahi puri in his mouth.
Near midnight, all of the tables outside of Apni Mandi were occupied by diners feasting on chaat and curry. The Sunnyvale grocery store serves hot food 24 hours. (Thien Pham)

The Midnight Diners is a regular collaboration between KQED food editor Luke Tsai and artist Thien Pham. Follow them each week as they explore the hot pot restaurants, taco carts and 24-hour casino buffets that make up the Bay Area’s after-hours dining scene.

One of my personal oddities is that I love going to the grocery store late at night, strolling the fluorescent-lit aisles of my local Safeway a few minutes before closing, when the place resembles a ghost town. There is a sort of Zen-like quietude, I find, to being the only person in the freezer aisle picking out a tub of ice cream, or contemplating the 17 different varieties of instant noodles. In these days of still-mostly-remote work, sometimes it’s the only time I leave the house all day.

Not that any of this could have prepared me for the mind-boggling crowd of produce browsers, chai drinkers and late-night snackers; the heaps of bagged spices and upbeat Bhangra music; and, all together, the glorious chaos of an Indian grocery store at midnight. Specifically, the 24-hour Apni Mandi (formerly Apna Bazar) supermarket in Sunnyvale.

Of course, it was news to us that there even is a 24-hour Indian grocery store in the Bay Area, much less one that sells hot vegetarian curries and chaat at all hours of the night. But even knowing that the place existed in theory, we were amazed to see just how many people — all ages, almost exclusively South Asian — had come to the grocery store past 11 o’clock at night. Outside, the eight or nine umbrella-topped tables in front of the store were all occupied by groups of friends making happy conversation over spreads of roti, curry platters and pani puri, devouring the food in the half-darkness. The only light came from the big, neon-yellow “Apni Mandi” sign glowing overhead.

Inside, the aisles were jam-packed with shoppers loading their carts with various sundries — a bag of onions, a bunch of half-ripe bananas, some Maggi noodles. More than a few just stood there chatting with a cup of (quite tasty) hot chai in hand, poured from the free chai dispenser at one end of the store. Others stood in line at a kiosk dedicated to selling assorted Indian cakes and sweets.

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If my typical late-night grocery jaunts are more of a soothing, slightly antisocial balm, this felt electric — reminiscent of my favorite night markets in Asia.

A crowd of people waiting in line to order food inside an Indian grocery store.
The longest line is at the hot food kiosk, where customers can choose from a variety of chaat, flatbreads and vegetarian curries. (Thien Pham)

By far the longest of the lines was the one for hot food. For 24 hours a day, customers can choose from an assortment of chaat, flatbreads and vegetarian curries, a rotating selection of which are displayed in Apni Mandi’s steam table setup. There is, I’ll admit, a certain intimidation factor to ordering here if you’re a first-timer not fluent in the vocabulary of kulchas and bhaturas. When you get to the front of the line, none of the curries are labeled, nor is it obvious what anything on the chaat menu even is if you haven’t had it before, and the long line behind you might add to the pressure.

But look: My feeling is that it’s healthy and character-building for every American to experience this mild level of discomfort at least once in a while — and when it’s in the service of procuring delicious food, who can complain? For the record, Apni Mandi’s friendly employees were happy to answer our questions, and, in a pinch, the smile-and-point method works perfectly well.

For just $8.99, the thali platter comes with rice, onions, roti and your choice of two of the day’s curries. The kadhi pakora was savory and tangy, with bits of vegetable fritter that had soaked in the sauce until they were pleasantly soggy. On the other end of the flavor spectrum, the paneer makhani was a chunky tomato-based curry with a wonderful zip of heat. Lunch, dinner, 3 a.m. snack, it doesn’t matter: This thali would make a fantastic meal at any time of day.

But really, everything we wound up ordering was delicious (and absurdly reasonable in price). The market’s hallmarks include its fresh, fat samosas, which come two to an order, with an aggressively well-spiced potato filling — the perfect thing to help you sort yourself out if you’ve had a little too much to drink. And the dahi puri are simply a delight: Close cousins to the better-known pani puri, the crispy semolina shells are topped with spices, tamarind chutney, yogurt and little crispy noodles. Try fitting the whole thing in your mouth at once for the ideal tangy-spicy-sweet bite.

With apologies, then, to my local Safeway, let us give praise to the 24-hour Indian grocer — to the pleasures of the hot food stand and the prospect of leaving home at midnight for the express purpose of sipping hot chai with friends in the produce aisle. Now that I’ve experienced it in all its glory, I’m afraid there’s no turning back.


Apni Mandi is open 24/7 at 1111 W. El Camino Real Ste. 107 in Sunnyvale.

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