Gurubachan Kaur Khalsa has probably fed every vegan and vegetarian in the city at least once, and her restaurant hasn’t even had its real opening yet.
Mata G Vegetarian Kitchen soft opened about four months ago to test out menus and business hours. Khalsa, the owner and chef, says that she’s been surprised at the steady stream of customers they’ve had with almost no advertising. “We’ve been having so much traffic already, and it’s all word of mouth.”
The new carry-out-focused vegetarian restaurant is at the corner of Silver and Amherst in the Nob Hill Business Center, which also houses La Montañita Co-Op. The presence of the Co-Op is probably responsible for many of Mata G’s early customers, as the clientele of an all-organic grocery co-op is going to have some crossover with that of a vegetarian restaurant. But some of the folks who walk in aren’t even vegetarian—they just like the convenience of the packaged carry-out meals. When I visit Mata G, one man I chat with in line says he’s a meat-eater most of the time, but he’s been coming to Mata G’s to pick up dinner every Wednesday since they opened.
Khalsa dishes out two plates of the day’s special for her and me to share while we talk. She’s dressed in all white, a Sikh dastaar on her head and fine silver bracelets on each wrist. Her accent is totally unclockable to me, due to a truly international personal history: She grew up in Mexico City in a Lebanese family, then moved to Boston and worked in the largely Indian and Pakistani Sikh community there in the ’70s. She worked as a cook at the Sikh temple in Boston for many years, blending the Indian recipes of her gurus with the Lebanese and Mexican cooking she learned from her childhood. This cross-cultural cuisine has informed the way she cooks now at Mata G, which serves a different special entrée every day of the week.
Khalsa and her husband moved to New Mexico about 40 years ago. Two of her three children still live here, and operate stores on the same block as Mata G: Sukhmani Home and Sukhmani Jewelry. Before she opened the restaurant, Khalsa designed some of the jewelry at her son’s store. She’s been grateful to have family so close, especially during some of the rougher moments of opening a restaurant, of which she had more than her fair share. Most notably, she and her husband had to move in with one of their sons about a month after the restaurant opened—because their house burned down.
She gets a sort of glazed, traumatized look in her eyes when she talks about it. “Thank goodness we weren’t there when it happened. We lost everything but the clothes we were wearing,” she says. When the fire department arrived and put out the fire they discovered asbestos in the few walls left standing, meaning they had to tear down what little remained. “But what am I going to do, cry about it for the rest of my life? No!” The tragedy has certainly put off the grand opening that Khalsa wanted to do months ago, but it didn’t keep her out of the kitchen. Hopefully, Khalsa says, the grand opening can happen sometime this month.
Besides the more dramatic roadblocks she’s faced, Khalsa has also had to deal with the typical uphill battle involved in opening a restaurant. Finding reliable servers proved difficult at first, but now she has a staff mostly composed of young people who all call her “Mata G,” which means “beloved mother” in Sanskrit.
As we chat over her daily special of beet parmesan, spinach supreme pasta and pesto tofu, many customers come in and give Khalsa a brief hug before ordering. She cooked for dozens of people in her neighborhood before she ever considered opening a restaurant, and many of those people are now regular customers. Some of the newcomers who visit Mata G for the first time see the fresh, healthy food and the minimalist elegance of the restaurant and say, “This is too good for Albuquerque,” according to Khalsa. “No more of that!” she says. “Plenty of good things are made here in Albuquerque.”
More than a couple of them are made at Mata G: Her tofu salad has won a lot of praise from vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, and her Sunday brunch has drawn a following, largely because of her chilaquiles (which happen to be one of my favorite dishes).
Khalsa sees definite potential for Mata G to expand in the future, but she’ll have to see how well this location does for a year or so first. She’s been trying to make her recipes very exact so they can be easily replicated at other locations in the future, “But I’m not sure I want to get into that. I’m 67!” she says, laughing. “But maybe my kids will,” she adds with a smile.