Sam and Jag Kambo are not only brothers; they are business partners and co-executive chefs. Their partnership has resulted in not one, but three successful restaurants in San Diego.
The brothers grew up in the Punjab region of Northern India, and came to America when they were young—17 and 20—to study business in San Diego. They didn’t know much about the city when they decided to move here, quickly discovered they’d “come to the best city." They never left.
After school, they both went into careers in the field they had studied in India: engineering. Having an interest in the restaurant business, however, they also opened a small storefront in Horton Plaza. They knew exactly what to serve—they put together a collection of family recipes from their mother. We "have been eating this food our whole lives," Sam explains of the flavorful curries and tandoori meats that comprise Northern Indian cuisine.
The restaurant, Royal India Express, was a success—it continues to be successful—and they soon opened another location in the UTC Shopping Center. Over the years, both locations garnered raves from patrons and friends. But there was always one nagging question: When are you going to open a fine dining restaurant? Friends wanted a place they could go to celebrate, where the ambiance would be just as good as the food.
“There was not [an Indian restaurant] with good ambiance and good food,” Sam explains, “There were places that had either one or the other, but not both.”
When they came across the available location on the block of Market between Second and Third Avenues, they knew the timing was right. “There was the demand. People wanted fine dining.” They took a year to construct the 150-seat restaurant precisely to their expectations. They concentrated on elegance, and the diner’s experience. “We keep the tables spread apart, for privacy,” Sam explains. “Not many restaurants downtown do that.”
Not many restaurants are true family operations either. When the fine dining restaurant opened, Sam and Jag realized they wanted to play a larger role in it than just being owners. They wanted to ensure consistency, and quality, which takes more involvement in a fine dining restaurant than in a quick service one. They made one of the biggest decisions of their lives: they quit their engineering careers to become full time restaurateurs.
“We kind of both came at the decision separately. We talked about it for a while, talked to our wives,” Sam says. They’ve never looked back. They love it.
"You're your own boss," Sam says with a smile. That’s one of the things he likes best about the new career. The other is the fun it provides.
"It's so much fun meeting so many people. We're both people persons, and the restaurant industry is, I think, the only industry where you can meet so many people."
Their enthusiasm and genuine happiness in their new career shines through. They love meeting guests, and like to treat them well, especially on special occasions. “When people come in for special occasions, we treat them to champagne with a cherry. It's always a surprise. We come over to their table and we toast with them. They're always surprised."
They also take special care to offer a range of dishes, a mix of generations-old recipes and modern, original creations. With the traditional dishes, authenticity is a priority. “Most people by [curry] powder,” Sam explains of the curry base that is used in so many of their dishes, “we make our own.” Making their curry base isn’t easy. It is a daily ritual that involves an enormous pot and simmering “onion, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and spices and herbs for five hours.”
They also incorporate traditional, and often rarely-seen, spices, such as ajwain, a thyme-like herb often not found outside of Northern India and Asia. It’s curiously strong, fresh flavor peppers the paneer-stuffed nan, lending an elusive, enticing note to each bite.
While they have an extensive array of traditional dishes, including, according to Sam, “authentic items no one else has,” the brothers have also created an array of lively, almost fusion-style dishes that keep the menu exciting. "Have you ever had mango pineapple curry?" Sam asks. It’s a sweet, mild dish they invented to appeal to guests who normally shy away from Indian food's spicy flavors. Their Coconut Curry is another unique creation: “coconut milk is usually a Thai ingredient, but we combine it with our house curry sauce,” Sam explains, adding that the combination makes for an outstandingly aromatic dish.
While the quality of their food is top-notch, the Kambo brothers don’t rely on their food alone—they work to ensure every aspect of the dining experience is of the highest quality. “A restaurant is not just about opening the door and serving food,” Sam explains.
He pauses for a moment, as if thinking over everything that goes into a successful restaurant, and adds, “It’s not a job, it’s a passion. You have to love it to do it.” Luckily for San Diego, the Kambo brothers have found their passion here.