Matthew Daniels and Meghana Shrivastava are monsoon birds who call Detroit their summer home.
Daniels, 38, a Southfield native, and Shrivastava, 27, from Bengaluru in southern India, have been slinging sandwiches for two summers now from their Nu Deli food truck in downtown’s Campus Martius Park.
Running the food truck in Detroit allows them to escape India’s monsoon season from April to October and keeps them busy when they can’t operate their restaurant, Verandah, in Goa, India.
Daniels said they wanted the food to be familiar to a Detroit audience, yet different, drawing on cuisines that are less common in American restaurants.
“I just saw an opportunity to introduce people to new flavors, new ingredients, stuff that was totally Indian but they might not have been exposed to before even if they loved Indian food,” Daniels said.
The pair debuted Nu Deli in July 2016 and returned this year in May.
“It’s a great time to be a food truck,” Daniels said.
A blossoming food truck scene and Daniels’ family draw the pair back to Detroit every summer. Nu Deli not only gives the family a chance to reconnect for six months of the year, but also realizes the dream Daniels’ mother, Ruth, always had of opening a restaurant.
“I always thought I would have a little dive with 12 seats and I would make salads and muffins, just a little place,” said Ruth Daniels, 71.
It’s not a diner, but together with their son and Shrivastava, Ruth and her husband, Larry Daniels, 74, man the truck and face the hungry hordes.
Larry, the people person and conversation-starter, takes orders, while the other three assemble sandwiches.
“His parents are throwing themselves into it,” Shrivastava said. “They’re in their 70s, but they’re tireless. They want to be a part of it.”
Daniels graduated from Detroit Country Day High School, and Harvard University in 2001. During college, he took three months to backpack in India in 1999.
After graduation, he began working in publishing in New York before settling in Mumbai in 2005 to teach Indian teens without high school diplomas computer skills with Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories.
He and Shrivastava met through mutual friends, and immediately started cooking for themselves and everyone around them. One night, Shrivastava said, a friend exclaimed, “This quiche is so good, you should open a restaurant! Or, better yet, a shack in Goa!”
In 2015, they did just that. Through sheer happenstance, while looking for empty locations in Goa in August, they met a French couple moving back to France looking to sell their fully equipped kitchen and restaurant.
Shrivastava said they had eyed the cafe already, thinking “Whoever owns that, they’ve got it figured out.”
Within a day and a half, they purchased the restaurant and that November, they opened Verandah.
Surrounded by trees on a hillside, Verandah features a restaurant, a level for hammocks, and Daniels and Shrivastava’s home on top.
“Basically, I would say, we’re very lucky,” Daniels said.
The couple clean up and fix appliances after the monsoons, cook and wait tables. They serve breakfast, quiches, pizzas and drinks.
The food truck is essentially a do-it-yourself project for the family. Among them, they’ve designed the iconic psychedelic red-orange truck splashed with a turquoise, orange and green mandala stuffed with sandwich motifs, printed their T-shirts and invented the menu.
The menu relies on and diverges from Indian cuisines in different ways. Some vegetables marinate in northern Indian spices; the Indian slaw is a fairly faithful rendition of koshimbir, a side for fish dishes in southern India. The iced chai, however, Shrivastava said was “blasphemous” at first, since Indians drink it hot — but the drink has managed to earn some Indian converts, including her.
Shrivastava said one of the biggest challenges is tailoring the naturally spicy ingredients to an American level of tolerance. The labor-intensive process involves halving, deseeding and slicing chilies into threads so that the kick doesn’t make eaters feel like their mouths are on fire.
Regardless of spice levels, the truck keeps busy. Daniels estimates they dished up nearly 120 sandwiches every day last week in Campus Martius Park.
During peak lunch rush hour Friday, 20 to 30 hungry downtowners waited patiently in line, like Indian and fusion fans Matt Counts, 31, ordering his third Nu Reuben this week.
“I already like Reubens,” Counts said. “The new flavors make it really flipping good.”
According to Daniels, the Nu Reuben is the most popular item, comprising about half a typical day’s sandwich output.
“It’s not like any other Reuben sandwich you’ve ever seen before,” Daniels said. The corned beef and Swiss on rye sandwich is tandoori-grilled, turning the bread bright red, and includes chili mayo and Indian slaw.
Bala Devarag and Asim Chauhan, both 30, came on the recommendation of a colleague.
They both ordered Lassi-style smoothies to sip while they waited for their Nu Veg Tikka sandwiches under the blazing noonday sun.
“There’s an Indian twist for sure, but it’s not completely Indian,” Chauhan said, digging into his sandwich. “We’re coming back.”
Ruth Daniels said she didn’t expect Nu Deli would get such a positive reception.
“One of the surprises is that people have been just lovely,” she said. “We see 150 customers at a time, and I can’t think of anyone who has been anything but lovely.”
This includes the other cooks, she said, who keep tabs on each other and trade food.
“It all started with one email in February 2016, and here we are,” she said. “It’s a diner on wheels, in a way.”
Downtown Detroit lunchtime locations:
Mondays, Spirit Plaza
Tuesdays, Eastern Market