Sartaj India Cafe: The Home-Style Indian Spot Where Locals Eat

The Saag Paneer plate at Sartaj India Cafe. (Brian Fong)

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.

Sartaj India Cafe in Sausalito.
Sartaj India Cafe in Sausalito. (Brian Fong)

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.

The Sausalito downtown isn't exactly known for down-to-earth home-style food.
The Sausalito downtown isn't exactly known for down-to-earth home-style food. (Brian Fong)

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.

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"This is totally home-style," he said.

After a fire destroyed their apartment last year, the local community raised over $11,000 for the family. They must have saved up goodwill from the annual Thanksgiving dinner party they throw annually -- free food, drinks, and music for anyone who wants to come to the restaurant the day before the holiday. The family is still waiting for the landlord to finish repairs, and are living nearby in the meantime, but they never closed the restaurant during the ordeal.

They have now made one concession to taking time off. Sartaj is closed on Mondays, but Balbir says that's just so she can prep for the week.

The vegetarian Mattar Paneer plate.
The vegetarian Mattar Paneer plate. (Brian Fong)

For all that hard work you get tasty home-cooked northern Indian food. It's not fancy, but it is good.

In the morning, they serve a unique breakfast -- both American-style and variations on Indian breakfast burritos and Indian scrambles with classic spices. The popular chai is $2.50 or $3, if you want the small or the large. Get a ginger chai with almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk, or regular milk. There's also a decaf option (and honey and sugar available). The mango lassi ($2.95) is another tasty alternative. But the real filler is the dinner.

With a very extensive vegetarian menu, I actually preferred the veggie dishes to the chicken. The saag paneer plate ($10.95) was a creamy spinach, green cabbage, and broccoli mix. The mattar paneer plate ($10.50) offered up a veggie pea and cheese combo in the classic tikka masala sauce. All plates come with rice, raita (a kind of yogurt), dhal (lentil soup), and chapatti (homemade soft wheat bread -- no naan here).

Chicken Masala
Chicken Masala (Brian Fong)

You can also order side dishes a la carte or on top of your main meal. I tried some chicken masala ($9.95), because there's nothing better when it comes to Indian food than mixing it all together. And, of course, topping it off with an Indian beer. The lamb is perhaps the cafe's most popular of the meats. You can get nearly all the dishes and sauces in either lamb, chicken, or a veggie version. Try the lamb curry burrito ($8.50) for a unique take.

The lamb plate.
The lamb plate. (Wendy Goodfriend)

If you have any leftovers, just take them home. The small shop, which has just a handful of tables and a few long plastic bench seats, serves up much of its food as to-go business. The hungry locals looking for filling dishes that aren't going to break the bank can't get enough.

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Sartaj India Cafe
43 Caledonia St. [map]
Sausalito, CA 94965
Ph: (415) 332-7103
Hours: Tue-Sun, 7am-9pm, closed Monday
Price range: $

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