Sue Pai's passion is cooking, mixing ingredients in her pots and creating healthy meals to nurture and soothe her customers.
Pai, who was born and raised in India, moved to Cincinnati a decade ago with her husband, Prakash, 52, a medical devices consultant, and their children, Sailee, 25, and Shrenick, 21. (Sue is a shortened form of Sujata, her birth name.)
Her family and friends spent years marveling at her skill with Indian cuisine, pleading with her to consider opening her own restaurant. She initially hesitated, even though owning a restaurant had always been her dream.
"I saw cooking as my hobby -- I enjoyed putting in fresh herbs, spices, proteins and vegetables in sauces," said Pai, 48, a small woman with bright eyes and an open, warm smile. "I had spent decades perfecting, but I didn't know if enough people would come to eat."
Then last year, when Shrenick, a finance major at Ohio State University, called her to tell her he couldn't get Indian food that was fast, delicious and inexpensive, Pai decided it was finally time to offer her food as an option to all.
Sailee, who also shares her mother's love for cooking, quit her part-time job at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center to help with the business venture, while Pai, a yoga instructor at L.A. Fitness, came up with a business plan. For research, she visited Chipotle, whose fast-casual style of dining her son had advocated for her own restaurant.
Eight weeks ago, she formally opened the doors of Indi-go Indian Wraps, Bowls and More, at 3392 Erie Ave. in Hyde Park. (The rationale behind the name is it's Indian cuisine to go.)
Unlike traditional Indian restaurants, Indi-go is the only Chipotle-inspired Indian restaurant in Cincinnati, Pai said.
"My passion for cooking has led me to this venture. I had previously worked as an Indian specialty cook and hosted informal chef events over the years," said Pai, who as a devotee of yoga has preached the concepts of holistic and healthy living for many years.
Indi-go is a casual-dining restaurant featuring Indian wraps, bowls and pizzas. Customers can pick a bowl, wrap or pizza with basmati rice, chicken and veggies and choose from four different sauces. Bowls are $7.99 and pizzas are $10.99.
It took Pai years to develop her recipes, and she has eliminated butter and cream from all of her sauces to make her cuisine easier to digest.
"My quest has been to use the healthier options in popular Indian delicacies with quick and convenient to-go service," she said.
On a recent day, young professionals packed the restaurant during lunch hour. Pai estimates that 98 percent of her clientele is American and that they are mostly people seeking healthier Indian food in either a casual dine-in setting or as a takeout option.
This WCPO correspondent, born and raised in India and familiar with the country's cuisine, ordered a bowl and a pizza. Both had Indian spices, but what made them stand out were the sauces. They evoked "ethnicity," but were not outlandish. The sauces would not have been out of place at a Chinese, Thai or Mexican restaurant, and yet 90 percent of the ingredients in the sauces are vegetarian.
Pai was cooking, serving and working the cash register by herself. She usually gets by with a little help from her family and friends, who eagerly line up to volunteer their hours.
The eatery also has regular Indian customers, such as Shweta Swali, who drives from Fairfield to eat at Indi-go.
"I like it because this style of food is a new concept. There isn't a restaurant like this anywhere," said Swali, 53, who doesn't like the typical fare at most Indian restaurants; she said the heavy curries can give you heartburn. "But Indi-go has top-quality food, and it is such a clean environment. And it's tasty."
Pai is determined to make Indian food "mainstream."
"I love my Indian food. And while many Americans buy basmati rice and eat samosas, Indian cuisine hasn't quite become as popular as Italian or Chinese restaurants," Pai said. "I want to change that."
Indi-go Indian Wraps, Bowls & More
3392 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Some other family-owned Indian restaurants in Greater Cincinnati: