The aromatic scents of saffron, turmeric and ginger fill the air of India Grill as patrons sip chai tea and munch on steaming plates of curry and naan. Behind the counter stands owner Santok Tambor, a stocky grey-haired man who is soft-spoken and often wears a kind smile.
Tambor takes pride in the establishment he started and grew over twenty years into a steady business that maintains a stand on Vendors Row just outside the Viking Union.
What keeps him going is not a drive for money, but a feeling of satisfaction he gains from serving the best and healthiest food possible at a reasonable price, Tambor said.
His journey to Bellingham stretched across three continents and over forty years since he left India with the hope of attaining a college education from a western university.
Tambor, 63, grew up in a small village in the Punjab Province in Northwestern India, at the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Punjab is on the border of Pakistan, and is the only province that is predominantly made of followers of the Sikh religion.
Tambor identifies as a Sikh though he no longer wears the traditional turban. He said he may only wear one from time to time for certain events.
“It was a hassle,” Tambor said. “When working in the restaurant, sometimes I was working in hot temperatures so it was hard.”
He attended college in a city nearby his village and recalls having to ride his bike several miles each way to get to classes.
“We used to have nice looking flowers all the time,” Tambor said. “There was a garden that belonged to the college and we used to sit in the flowers. I miss that.”
After graduating with a bachelor of science degree in 1974, Tambor left for Munich, Germany, with the hope of attending a university and eventually moving the U.S.
Finding it difficult to concentrate, mainly due to a requirement of immigrants to learn the German language, Tambor went the U.S. embassy on his first Christmas away from India and applied for a visa to come to America.
“The ambassador asked me what I wanted to do in the U.S.,” Tambor said. He said he had read about the high-rise buildings in New York as a child and wanted to see them. “I applied for two weeks and she gave me a six-month visa. She knew that I wasn’t going to come back [to Germany].”
Once in New York City and in his early twenties, Tambor began working at an Indian restaurant in Manhattan where he recalls a happy-go-lucky lifestyle similar to other young New Yorkers, working by day and going to the discos by night.
He studied computer programming at New York University for about six months but soon left, once again finding it difficult to stay focused due to the excitement of the big city.
He fondly recalls a night spent at Studio 54, a legendary nightclub that was frequently visited by celebrities such as Elton John, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson while it was still in operation.
After leaving at around 4 a.m., the group was hungry but Tambor did not believe that there would be any restaurants open. His friend insisted that he knew a great place that was still open.
Tambor’s friend took them to a diner on 54th street and Park avenue, though he does not recall the name.
“It was almost daylight,” Tambor said. “As soon as we walked downstairs we had 25 people ahead of us in line, I was so surprised.”
After more than twenty years in New York City added with the responsibility of a wife and small children, he and his family moved across the country to Blaine, Washington, in search of something new. Blaine was a logical choice due to the proximity of family in Vancouver, B.C.
Initially, Tambor did not want to get into the restaurant business due to the long hours required and instead wanted to buy a gas station or other small business. However, after seeing that most restaurants in Bellingham closed for the night much earlier than in New York, he began to entertain the idea.
It was then that he started India Grill at 1215 Cornwall Ave. in downtown Bellingham.
Tambor has enjoyed success at the restaurant that has allowed him to send all four of his children to four-year universities. He has also appreciated a cheaper cost of living and a better environment to raise his four children due to the quality of schools in Bellingham area.
“This part of the country is so clean,” Tambor said. “In New York when you see the trees there is dirt on the leaves.”
Food for the Soul
Tambor brought India Grill to Vendors Row at Western about five years ago. He said that while the stand doesn’t make a lot of money on its own, it is great marketing for his restaurant downtown and many students who eat on campus are regulars at the flagship.
Beyond the business aspect, Tambor enjoys what working on campus brings, as well as the opportunity to serve students healthy and nutritious food.
Tambor sites an article called “A Well-Seasoned Mind” in AARP magazine that highlights common Indian spices such as garlic, saffron and cinnamon for benefits from Alzheimer’s prevention to migraine relief.
He is also adamant about feeding Vikings regardless of whether or not they have enough money to buy lunch on any given day.
“I’m not too concerned about the money,” Tambor said. “I always tell [students] don’t worry if you don’t have money or are short, you can pay me another time. I hardly find anybody that is dishonest.”
Senior Paul Kalousek said he eats Tambor’s food often while ordering food at Vendors Row.
“I love the butter chicken, it just makes the rest of my day go by better,” Kalousek said.
Tambor then interrupted to ask if Kalousek wanted more chicken on an already heaping box. He nodded. “He’s always so gracious with giving me whatever I want,” Kalousek said. “He’s a great guy.”
Western grad Shane Farrell used to eat Tambor’s food often but now tries to avoid eating out.
“I always go for the chicken curry,” Farrell said. “It’s still awesome.”
Tambor can can be found serving food at India Grill on Vendor’s Row every weekday.