Masala meatball

Masala meatball

In Hindu and Urdu, the word “jungli” loosely translates to “wild child,” or an unruly denizen of the Indian jungles. 

Operating as a ghost kitchen for the last month or so, Jungli offers changing weekly menus offering creative takes on South Asian cuisine.

Jungli is the wild brainchild of Rupal Patel and her cousin, Abhi Patel, who intentionally birthed the concept during the pandemic lockdown.

“I think Los Angeles is one of the greatest culinary destinations in the world,” Rupal said. “I so appreciate the depth of culture and ethnic cuisine that’s available here.”

However, there was something missing. 

“What’s so shocking to me about Los Angeles, relative to other big culinary destinations like New York or D.C., Vancouver or Toronto, is that they have a very robust, upscale, modern South Asian restaurant scene in each of those cities. 

“But in Los Angeles, for some reason, it just isn’t as robust. You have a lot of the mom-and-pop restaurants that are reflective of my parents’ generation. By and large there is a supply and demand issue, from my perspective, around South Asian cuisine in Los Angeles. That was one really compelling reason for us to start.”

As the harsh realities of Downtown’s pandemic landscape began to manifest for its restaurateurs, avenues also opened. 

“It was clear that obviously the government abandoned the industry,” Rupal said. “People were in dire straits. We knew that frankly the barriers to entry were going to be significantly reduced during the pandemic. The cost of liquor licenses is much more affordable; commercial leases are much more flexible. So, it felt like it was a good opportunity to get in without having the kind of capital you needed pre-pandemic to start a business. It’s where challenge meets opportunity, basically.”

Rupal doesn’t have a background in restaurants. Her interest in food evolved over her experience in private equity management and her work establishing the nonprofit farm labor contractor California Harvesters Inc. At heart, Jungli is a progressive, “mission-driven” venture. 

“My background in private equity was really around the food system and agriculture (and) recognizing the Los Angeles restaurant industry sources the majority of its produce from these neighboring farm communities that surround our city,” Rupal said.

“I think food and food security is a really interesting topic these days.” 

She hopes to use Jungli to explore and drive collective innovation among Downtown restaurateurs.

“I think there was a recognition for me that the power of ownership can really improve the way we engage with farmers and our food system and help it become more equitable and more resilient than I think it is today,” Rupal said.

“Figuring out how do we get a sourcing program established for Downtown restaurants? With the farmers markets, how do we develop relationships with these farmers? Figure out ways to educate (the community) around what the inequities are in the food system in the United States currently and especially in California. I think it’s an interesting opportunity to start talking more about food security and the sustainability of our food systems.” 

The fresh ingredients in Jungli’s South Asian inventions reflect this focus and interest.

Rupal defines the cuisine’s region quite specifically. 

“There are seven countries that make up the South Asian region,” she said. “It’s Nepali food, Indian food, Pakistani food, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and probably the Maldives. There’s a tremendous amount of diversity between all of those different countries and their cuisines.” 

Chef Ali Haji was recruited to conjure dishes from this diverse palette of influence. Born and raised in Redondo Beach, he most recently worked with chef Brendan Collins at the Corner Door in Culver City. 

“I frankly didn’t think I’d find a South Asian chef in Los Angeles to work with,” Rupal said. “I thought we’d have to go to one of the other big cities, where it was more saturated with South Asian cuisine. He was just really inspired and excited about bringing modern, upscale South Asian food to LA. To him, it was also very perplexing why it hasn’t existed here so far, in the kind of way it has in other cities. Ali gets very creative and innovative in how he bridges all of these cultural elements into our specific cuisine and narrative.”

The menu at Jungli changes weekly, reflecting Haji’s latest inspirations. While there is a distinct blend of influence, a sense of authenticity also pervades. 

“The tradition and authenticity of flavor is really important,” Rupal said. “We just want to make sure from the flavor profile, it’s authentic. That matters the most to us more than anything.”

So what’s for dinner? During a recent week, the menu included such starters as trat mango salad ($12) with green mango, cabbage, cherry tomatoes, red onion and a banyuls vinaigrette; crispy sunchokes ($12) with fingerling potatoes, “panch phoron” and herbed yogurt; and Bengali cauliflower ($12) prepped with coconut, pickled chilis, cashews and lime juice.

A bit of a creative mashup ensues in the saag arancini ($10), with balls of spiced risotto infused with spinach and paneer sauced with an aioli of bishop’s weed. There is also a stuffed paratha bread ($16) with fenugreek paratha engorged with lamb, spicy lime pickle and labneh cheese topped with salsa fresca.

More substantial fare can be found with the masala-rubbed pork ribs ($26), served with pickled cabbage and housemade white bread. Likewise apt satiation can be found in the lamb burger ($22), served with butter lettuce, onion and tomato topped with a spiced aioli. 

Dessert included buttermilk pie ($7) with pistachio and cardamom. There’s also a five-course family meal that feeds four to six people. Check the website for those details.

For now, Jungli operates out of a commercial commissary — Crafted Kitchen — on Santa Fe Avenue in the Arts District, but Patel intends to open the actual restaurant by late fall in a location that will remain Downtown.

“I love the Downtown scene,” Rupal said. “There is a lot of camaraderie and a spirit here that doesn’t exist in other parts of the city. I’m very loyal. It’s one of the most authentic areas of the city. I’m really happy to be part of the community.”