It’s a buttery, warm autumn day, seemingly filled with opportunity, when I am greeted by the proprietor of The Cabana’s Kitchen, Aseem Bhatia. Bhatia’s smile is genuine and brighter than the day’s sun; as I soon discover, it is his trademark.
“The Cabana’s Kitchen is a fast food restaurant with a twist,” Bhatia tells me as we settle in for the interview, sipping water on the patio. “Everything that The Cabana serves is prepared in-house and cooked fresh each morning.” Although the covered patio is lovely (with a stunning, vivid mural of a woman and a parrot at one end) and there are plenty of seats in the restaurant for patrons to sit and enjoy the view, it is primarily a place to get great food, fast. Bhatia’s philosophy focuses on cleanliness, personal client service, fresh and delicious fare prepared quickly and competently before the customer.
Bhatia opened The Cabana’s Kitchen on August 31, and business has been great from the outset. Located at 873 Bank Street (where the soup restaurant used to be), the restaurant focuses on a melody of southern California and Mexican street food – burrito bowls, signature tacos, nachos, quesadillas, Mexican-style soft drinks and beer. There is a children’s menu too. The recipes come from years of working in the business, tweaked and updated to reflect personal tastes, with a hint of Indian from his homeland.
“The customer picks everything,” Bhatia excitedly explains. “Hot, medium or mild seasonings. Pick your own toppings. Build your own burrito bowls and salads.”
Inside, the restaurant’s decor is open, with a long counter that allows the customer to see the food being prepared. Menus are tastefully printed on chalk boards. The walls are a stylish mix of grey barnboard panelling and exposed brick, with seating at benches, the counter and small tables.
People pass us on the street, many of them calling out to Bhatia by name and waving to him. For every person that waves and for every customer who enters the restaurant, Bhatia flashes his amazing smile. His smile reflects his life approach.
“My mother always says when you prepare food from your heart, it tastes better. When you do things from the heart, you do it better.”
Bhatia is happy in what he does and how he got here. Immigrating to Canada from India seven years ago, he has been working in the business ever since. He started out working in Mexican-style restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then as a preparer of food, then as a manager, learning and working his way up at every step. Now he is the owner of his own restaurant. Bhatia is thankful to Canada and our beautiful city for welcoming and supporting him, and he is proud to call Canada home.
Bhatia loves his Glebe location. He considers the Glebe a tough market but in a good way. “Glebe residents challenge you to be better and to do better. They expect a business to be environmentally and quality conscious.” In return, Bhatia believes the Glebe supports and cherishes its locally owned, family-run businesses. His clientele includes students, local workers, business owners and the many “friendly Glebe residents,” he tells me, who love his food.
After the interview, I order a cauliflower taco. I watch as Bhatia prepares it fresh before my eyes, just as I wanted it, in a clean environment; it is served in a reusable basket. I take a bite and it is delicious.
I’ve been observing Bhatia. He greets every customer, everyone who greets him, with his heartwarming, trademark smile. The kitchen party at this Cabana isn’t one of loud noise and slurred speech; rather, it reflects the happiness and thankfulness that Bhatia exhibits for his life, for the gifts that it has given him, for his customers and for the restaurant he owns and operates with all the passion and joy he can bring to it.
I leave Bhatia’s Cabana a better and happier person. A bargain for the price of a scrumptious, five-dollar taco.
John De Genova is a poet and retired public servant with a penchant for small business.