When childhood friends-turned-business partners Rahul Vinod and Sahil Rahman opened Rasa in Navy Yard two years ago, they didn’t just have yet another fast-casual restaurant concept. They had a challenge: make Indian food accessible to the masses—both figuratively and the literal thousands who swarm nearby Nationals Park and neighboring businesses by proxy.
“There were a lot of people, even into college, who were like ‘I really like you. I support you. I just don’t do Indian food’,” says Vinod, who like Rahman is a Gaithersburg native and first generation Indian-American.
Where they are today with their efforts to make Indian-food-for-all is telling. Two new “fine fast-casual” Rasa locations will open soon: one in Mt. Vernon Triangle’s City Vista development this winter, and the other in National Landing in connection with Amazon’s HQ2 headquarters next spring. Big-name developers are on board (Edens for DC, JBG Smith for Virginia). And even bigger-name athletes have joined the team. Redskins star and about-town philanthropist Vernon Davis just signed on as a “significant investor” and Rasa brand ambassador. Like the young restaurateurs, Davis is a University of Maryland grad and was introduced through a mutual friend.
“I loved Sahil and Rahul’s energy and passion,” says Davis. “I could tell they were driven to succeed, and most importantly their humility was few and far between.”
Humility is something the duo say was taught to them by their fathers, who are also involved in Rasa: chef K.N. Vinod and Surfy Rahman—another set of friends-turned-restaurateurs who immigrated to Washington in 1985 and later opened Indique in Cleveland Park and Rockville’s Bombay Bistro. The sons grew up in the restaurants at a time when they say it was even harder to break down stereotypes about their cuisine.
“We’re absolutely standing on their shoulders and walking down the path they paved,” says Rahman. “They had to fight all sorts of racism and challenges. Landlords wouldn’t give them a space because they’re like ‘I don’t want my building to smell.’ It’s what immigrant parents deal with that has made the road easier for us.”
The sons say their response to those friends who “just don’t do Indian food” was to drag them—”sometimes kicking and screaming”—into their family restaurants. More times than not, those same friends would come back again and again with dates or their parents. And while they’re far from needing to drag customers into their own restaurant, they same that same approachability factory is part of their business model. Bowls clock in between $10 and $13 with cheeky names like “Tikka Chance on Me” and “Aloo Need Is Love.” Guests can also customize their own with an array of proteins, sauces, veggies, chutneys, and toppings, and round out meals with snacks like mini samosas, young coconuts cracked to order, and fresh-baked naan. The restaurant is also designed to serve both lunch and evening crowds, where patrons can grab a salad bowl and mango lassi during the day or a masala gin-and-tonic and heartier lamb kebabs or ginger shrimp come dinner.
Local design group HapstakDemetriou+ will replicate the colorful Navy Yard space in DC and Virginia with its basket swing seats, bookshelves lined with South Asian authors and family mementos, and paintings from local artist (and family member) Nandita Madan on the wall. These next two Rasas likely won’t be the last—especially with Davis on board.
“We’ve been hesitant to share, but we do have big aspirations,” says Rahman. “We’re excited to introduce our cuisine and build a place where people feel comfortable on a large scale. We can show off our culture after so many years of apologizing for it.”
Rasa. Crystal City: 2200 Crystal Dr., Suite F, Arlington; Mt. Vernon Triangle: 475 K St., NW