In July 2014, just four months after Candice Lock, her brother-in-law Sameer Mirchandani, and husband Amit Mirchandani, had set up Chinita in Bangalore, southern India, the restaurant burned down in the middle of the night. “I didn’t even have a chance to be emotional about it,” Lock remembers. Everyone pitched in, even the contractor who had helped with setting up the restaurant. Now, almost 10 years later, the restaurant operates in three locations, with an upcoming fourth site in the south east of Bangalore, which includes an in-house gourmet sandwich brand. Gradually, after the incident, things started picking up for Lock, with Chinita receiving mentions in local publications, food blogs, and on Instagram. By 2017, there were lines outside the door for Chinita’s braised pork tacos, almond horchata, and elote-style grilled corn. “On the weekends, the restaurant was packed and customers would be pissed at us for having to wait 45 minutes for a table,” Lock remembers.
During the course of an hour-long Zoom conversation in October 2023, Lock shares with me the improbable trajectory of Chinita — a self-described “authentic” Mexican restaurant in southern India, which was conceived in apartment kitchens of Lower Manhattan’s Little Italy in New York City. Indeed, that the restaurant ever came to be is a matter of total chance, with Lock revealing that she never had plans to either move to India nor start a restaurant. Equipped with a degree in information and management from Drake University in Iowa, she moved to New York in 2000, working as a web developer for startups before moving to the tech giant Yahoo. Cooking, however, was always in the back of Lock’s mind, attending classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in the city for fun. Then sometime in 2008, she had to renew her visa (Lock is originally from Malaysia) and leave the country for six months. Yahoo offered her the choice of India, Hong Kong, or Singapore. With almost 10 years of tech experience, Lock decided that India, and in particular Bangalore, would look best on her resume, since it was and is regarded as a high-growth tech hub, often referred to as the Silicon Valley of India. “In my mind, I was just going to be here for six months,” she told me. A year after Lock had landed in India, she was laid off. “I was stuck, but in between, I met my husband, who then convinced me [to] ‘fuck corporate America; let’s stay in Asia and do your own thing’.”
Lock’s ‘thing’ would become cooking; she thrived in the kitchen cooking for her boyfriend’s family in Bangalore (the couple wed in 2011), taking inspiration from the diverse neighbourhoods and their cuisines in New York City that she dined in while living there. Mexican food, especially, became popular, despite the scarcity of ingredients in her new home. “Fourteen years ago in Banglore, there was nothing, no tortilla, no sour cream, no pre-made mixes…[so] I recreated flavours based on what I ate in the US,” she says. This was the foundation for Chinita. “I wanted people to experience what I ate in Mexico, in San Francisco, and in New York. It’s not just about the food. It’s also about how we serve you, about the overall package. You’re not just coming to eat, say, Tex-Mex food; it’s really an experience.” Chinita was unwilling to dilute the restaurant according to local tastes, trends, and habits. It would not, for example, serve french fries at the request of customers who wanted to eat something familiar, a relatively bold move in a country that often seeks to oversimplify and/or Indianise its foods: see aloo tikki burgers at McDonalds, thandai corn flakes by Kellogg’s, paneer tikka subs by Subway, chicken and biryani at KFC, to name but a few. A big part of Lock’s early work with Chinita was to create a Mexican restaurant in India which resisted those commercial temptations, offering dishes like grilled chicken tostadas and a made-from-scratch mole that impressed Mexican diners.
In 2012, Lock’s friend Anjali Ganapathy who runs Pig Out, suggested that she sell her tacos at the Sunday flea market Soul Sante in Bangalore. It took Lock , who was pregnant with her first child, three days to prepare and she involved her entire family. “We sold 300 tacos before the evening, even though at that time I was just doing this for fun.” Later, a stint at the now-closed the Humming Tree in 2013, a music and performance venue in the east of the city, gave Lock and Mirchandani their first break. They were there for a year — which she says was a “good year of learning” — mastering the art of running a kitchen and managing a restaurant, besides dealing with the guilt of being away from her young child. Around this time, Lock and her husband then travelled to Mexico to eat and learn from local cooks in Oaxaca and Zihuatanejo, before returning to open Chinita in Indiranagar in March 2014.
But although much of what Chinita would become owes to the tasting and research done on that trip, the chef traces the turning point in her life and restaurant’s journey back to her undergraduate days in Iowa, where she struggled with the lack of flavour in the food, as well as dealing with being away from home for the first time. “Being there for three years was like being in a cage. When I was released into New York, I went nuts eating everywhere and everything.” In an effort to recreate all the flavours she tasted, Lock started cooking, a process she found was instinctive. And it was this joy of making something from scratch, transforming ingredients into a plate of food, which is the foundation of her success in the kitchens of Chinita.
It was also truly unique. Instead of Indianising flavours or broadening the scope to lump it with Italian food to suit local palates, Lock was firm in the belief of doing the cuisine properly — starting with a corn taco. What made her job easy were the similarities in flavours between Indian and Mexican food. “Beans in Mexico are like dal in India; there’s many versions of it. The difference is in the way you’re eating it,” she says. But running a restaurant and being successful is of course about more than cooking well, no matter how novel and pioneering it may have been. It was also about culture: “The last thing I want is to have someone breathe down my neck and say ‘do this, do that, I think you’ll make more money here’. We’re very comfortable with the way we’re growing. I love money, but ultimately, I’m happier [being] surrounded by the right people, in a good place, helping my staff, and growing with them. That is more satisfying to me.”
Almost as satisfying as the journey she has taken: from watching her father cook in Malaysia to opening three restaurants in India, after a career in tech in the United States. Although Lock once saw herself living in New York indefinitely, looking back she now realises that something was missing, and jokes that she may have even unknowingly manifested her current life in her twenties: “It came to me in a way that I didn’t envision. I guess it’s never how you want it to be, it just sort of happens,” she laughs. Chinita is Mexican for ‘little Chinese girl’, which Lock says used to be her nickname in the salsa clubs of New York. “I thought how funny it is that a Chinese girl would come to India to make Mexican food.”
Words by Apoorva Sripathi; photography courtesy of Chinita.