When Gurmail and Balbir Basi moved to Marin City in 1989, from the Punjab region of India, they didn't have any plans to open a restaurant. In fact, when Balbir started working at the location that is now Sartaj India Cafe, it was then an Italian coffee shop.
She worked at that coffee shop, while her husband, Gurmail, worked at nearby Albertson's. But there were too many coffee shops in Sausalito, and not so many Indian restaurants. With all the competition, it was hard to make money and the coffee shop owner planned to shut down. She asked the Basis if they wanted the lease and they opened Sartaj India Cafe in 1996.
For 21 years, they've dished out classic Punjabi dishes in the unassuming storefront restaurant, and have lived in the apartment above. For the first decade, Balbir did all that work herself -- with some help from her daughter after school. She cooked seven days/week, 12 hours/day. She didn't take a vacation for nearly 10 years.
Gurmail eventually left Albertson's so the two could run the restaurant together. He mans the front counter, greets the locals (most of whom just call him Basi), and makes the chai. He also does all the shopping, heading to farmers markets in San Francisco and Oakland every other day. It's too expensive to have ingredients delivered, said Balbir, so he has to wake up each morning at 4 a.m. to get what they need in order to have the doors open for breakfast around 7 a.m.
Sausalito may be best known as a high-end tourist spot, and Caledonia Street is full of expensive and fancy foodie destinations. In between Sushi Ran and Fast Food Français, the Basis' small down-to-earth restaurant looks almost out of place. It might seem like an odd location for a storefront spot with no website, social media presence, or any system more complicated than Gurmail writing down your order on a piece of paper and handing it to Balbir.
But it has thrived as a local favorite. More than half of the customers are Sausalito locals who come in regularly and simply request their "usual," said Gurmail -- a phenomenon I witnessed at least twice while we were eating dinner.